Plot thickens in mystery over next Test captain
The mystery surrounding the identity of Australia's next long term Test cricket captain is greater than ever as selectors stepped back from the future on Wednesday.
Pat Cummins has retained the job of Tim Paine's vice-captain for the South African tour with chairman of selectors Trevor Hohns saying he has no doubt Cummins could handle the top job "in certain circumstances ... if anything were to happen to Tim in the short term.''
Hohns steered well away from a categorical "he's our next man'' rubber stamp for Cummins as the next long term leader.
The plot thickens ...
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Could Steve Smith swoop late? Now that Alex Carey is back in the fold could he be a chance as well? And what about the bolter Marnus Labuschagne?
It appears nothing has been inked in or totally ruled out.
There is a leadership void and it remains a genuine surprise Australia's states are not taking the hint and giving candidates more exposure with Hohns all but inviting the states to throw their best men forward by declaring "all options'' would be explored.
Australia has not had a pace bowling captain since Ray Lindwall did it in one Test in 1956-57 and plenty of seasoned judges such as former Test skipper Mark Taylor believes it is simply too much to ask of the lion-hearted, relentlessly brilliant Cummins to be the team's bandmaster and bowling bayonet as well.
Sanity will surely prevail and Cummins will be anchored in as a vice-captain while the head role changes around him.
Hohns spoke just hours after former captain Michael Clarke said on radio that if Paine is to be Australia's Test captain for the Ashes next season he should lead the squad in South Africa. Otherwise he should be replaced.
Hohns gave Paine passionate support to continue in the role and, as Greg Chappell pointed out, Australia's demise to India had very little to do with Paine and everything to do with Australia's brittle batting.
But there is mounting pressure on Australia to get its house in order in South Africa for the Ashes. Two losing series in a row would see Australian cricket rocked to the cores.
Having plumped for Paine in South Africa, Australia has now made Paine favourite to lead the side against England next summer. But nothing is certain.
Australia needs to beat South Africa to ensure it can tackle England next summer in a settled state.
There have been calls for Paine to take more authority in the running of the side in South Africa for he is the one who cops the flak when they don't perform.
There were members of the Indian team who beat Australia who felt their high performance unit trumped Australia off the field with better game plans, particularly by their bowlers.
Captaincy search: What about Marnus?
Marnus Labuschagne has become the forgotten man in Australia's search for a future Test captain.
There is no push by Queensland, the Brisbane Heat or Australia to help Labuschagne grow as a leader which is a surprise given his current Test record makes him one of the genuine batting heavyweights of world cricket.
Australia was too conservative to consider making Labuschagne joint vice-captain for the forthcoming South African tour but it would have been a worthy move because he needs to start thinking of himself as a leader given his rising status in the team.
Players are entitled to grow up on their journey.
Not everyone is born with the natural maturity of a Mark Taylor or an Ian Chappell.
People forget there was only a time a few years ago when Joe Root was the cheeky faced back-of-the-bus kid in the England Test team who loved a prank and a gee-up far more than the thought of captaining his country.
There was another young player, Ricky Ponting, who loved a night out and occasionally got in a spot of bother but he surged through a challenging period to become one of Australia's most decorated leaders.
Steve Waugh was once a stony faced kid who sat all but silent in the corner of the Australian dressing room and looked anything but the outstanding captain he matured into.
It's true that Labuschagne would not be an ideal choice at the moment captaining a team of players who are older than he is and who saw him join the team in an excitable puppy sort of way.
But he is growing as a person and must be encouraged to grow further for soon enough he will be a standout captaincy option.
In a couple of years he could be the world's leading batsman with a 50-plus average and 50 Tests under his belt surrounded by a group of youngsters who hold his deeds in awe.
In recent times Australia has appointed Mitchell Marsh and Travis Head vice-captain of Australia but Labuschagne has both of them covered.
The first requirement of a vice-captain is making the team and he is at least assured of that.
For all of his quirkiness Labuschagne does have one thing in his favour as a leader - an incredible zest for the contest.
The bigger the challenge the more determined he becomes, a fair start for any leader.
You never know where a decent leader is hiding.
Tim Paine could not even get a game for Tasmania a couple of years before he captained Australia.
Originally published as Plot thickens in mystery over next Test captain