Boland, Hazlewood in a battle for spot in Boxing Day Test against South Africa

As Australia gear up for the second Test against South Africa here on Boxing Day, they face a dilemma as senior Josh Hazlewood is back from injury and is facing a direct battle with Scott Boland for selection as the third pacer.

Skipper Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc are sure to get the first two spots, Hazlewood’s return to fitness has put the selectors in a quandary as Boland has done well in the first Test and put up a claim to be retained for the next Test.

Australia’s chairman of selectors George Bailey conceded that there is little to separate between the two pacers for a role in the starting XI and said the quandary was a happy one to confront.

Besides Boland and Hazlewood, Queensland seamer Michael Neser, who substituted for Cummins in the recent Adelaide Test, Western Australia speedster Jhye Richardson are also back in selection calculations after recovering from injury. Another fast bowler, Lance Morris, is also in the mix having been included in the squad for the Gabba Test.

Boland claimed four wickets for a miserly 42 runs at the Gabba, taking his tally to 25 from five Tests to date at a stunning average of 10.33 apiece. That puts him behind compatriots Charles ‘Terror’ Turner (8.55) and England’s George Lohmann (10.22) – both of whom played in Test cricket’s formative years in the late 19th Century — have reached 25 wickets at a lower average.

But Hazlewood remains among the top 20 on the ICC’s Test bowler rankings (Boland was 45th before last weekend’s match) and is rated “close to 90 per cent” fit by Bailey after missing the past two matches against West Indies in Adelaide and South Africa at the Gabba with a side strain, said a report on cricket.com.au.

As the pitch at the Melbourne Cricket Ground is expected to be vastly different from the bowler-friendly strip for the first Test at Gabba, the three-member selection panel — Bailey, men’s team coach Andrew McDonald and Tony Dodemaide — is expected to take a final call on the team composition a few days later.

Asked whether Boland has edged ahead of Hazlewood going by his recent performance, Bailey admitted that Boland’s record ensured he would be considered a first-choice pick for any venue.

“He was on the radar for the MCG last year because of exactly what we’ve seen him do – he bashes a length, and his ability to take multiple wickets in the same over speaks to how consistent he is and the questions he asks of the batter right from ball one,” Bailey was quoted as saying on Monday.

“He’s going fantastically (but) Josh is recovering really well. He had another really good hit out (on Sunday) and is close to 90 per cent I reckon. He’ll keep building and clearly, we’ve got a decision to make, but it’s a good problem to have,” he added.

Bailey also said that there was no compulsion to rush back Hazlewood from his second side strain in as many summers given the volume of Test cricket that lies ahead for Australia.

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