Australia's selectors have been spared an 11th-hour selection dilemma, with the paceman Peter Siddle expected to recover from a heavy fall in Wednesday's domestic one-day game between Victoria and South Australia. Andrew Hilditch's panel will announce a 14-man squad on Thursday for the three-Test series in South Africa, and Siddle is expected to be named alongside Mitchell Johnson, Doug Bollinger and Ben Hilfenhaus.
Those plans appeared in jeopardy when Siddle, making his return from a foot injury that sidelined him from Australia's one-day international series, fell awkwardly in the field and completed only seven overs
for Victoria. Siddle said after the South Australia innings that he was not seriously injured - "I'm just buggered" - and would be available for national selection.
That came as a major relief to Hilditch and his fellow selectors, who are already missing Brett Lee (ankle) and Stuart Clark (elbow) ahead of a series in which South Africa will challenge them for the No. 1 ranking. Matthew Hayden's recently vacated opening post looms as the most contentious decision. Phil Jaques posted a century in his last Test innings
and has a highly respectable 902 runs from his 11 matches, but is facing a strong challenge from his New South Wales team-mate Phillip Hughes.
Hughes, 20, capped a brilliant 2008 campaign by being named
the Bradman Young Cricketer of the Year at Tuesday's Allan Border Medal ceremony. He has been in sublime touch for the Blues all season, and did his chances of a maiden Test call-up no harm with 151 and 82 not out in the Sheffield Shield
match against Tasmania.
Ricky Ponting, the Australia captain, set the stage for an intriguing selection showdown by calling on Hilditch's panel to name only one opener to partner Simon Katich. "I don't reckon [the selectors] will pick two openers," Ponting said. "I think they should make their mind up now and pick whoever they think is going to be the best selection for South Africa and possibly for the Ashes tour as well.
"Phillip [Hughes] has done absolutely everything in his power to give himself the best chance to be picked. His record for New South Wales in the last couple of years has been outstanding ... [and] obviously one thing in Phil [Jaques'] favour is his Test experience and his Test record behind him. He did nothing wrong in the games he played when he came into the side and he made a hundred in his last game."
The selectors must also decide whether to call-up two spinners - most likely Bryce McGain and Nathan Hauritz - or just the one. McGain is considered the front-runner among the slow bowlers, but at 36, and with no Test experience, he represents a considerable gamble. Hauritz provides a sound defensive option, and drew praise from his state captain Katich after six wickets for New South Wales against Tasmania.
The suspension of Andrew Symonds and injury to Shane Watson should result in the Victoria allrounder Andrew McDonald holding his place, although the incumbent one-day allrounder James Hopes could apply pressure. Symonds, meanwhile, will be named on Thursday in Queensland's one-day and four-day sides to play Victoria and South Australia, respectively, and faces a steep climb to reclaim his Test place ahead of the Ashes series.
While Australia's selectors contend with injuries and suspension, Mike Procter's South Africa panel have been buoyed by the news that Graeme Smith and Ashwell Prince are well advanced in their recoveries and will be available for the first Test in Johannesburg from February 26. Mickey Arthur, the coach, said Smith was recovering well from the torn elbow tendon that inconvenienced him for the majority of 2008.
"He has had the second blood injection in his elbow, and the experts say he is ahead of schedule," Arthur said. "He met us upon our return to South Africa and seems very confident that he will be right to play the first Test."