Ashes report card: Bancroft, Harris make huge push
SHEFFIELD Shield cricket has returned, giving players across the land - or at least those who haven't been shuffled off to play white-ball cricket in India - a few more chances to push their Ashes cases.
And immediately the runs flowed, with Ashes locks, hopefuls and the odd bolter giving selectors a gentle reminder of their qualities.
All summer we lamented Australia's century drought - which threatened to reach historic levels before the dam burst in the final Test of six, with Joe Burns, Travis Head and Kurtis Patterson all cashing in against Sri Lanka.
And over the course of four days we had centuries not just from those vying for Ashes spots, but also a 27-year-old debutant.
Let's take a look at how the return of the Sheffield Shield will impact on selectors' Ashes thoughts.
Many of the locks - including bowlers Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood (both injury), Usman Khawaja, Nathan Lyon and Jhye Richardson (all on white-ball duties in India) - were notable absentees from the Shield this week.
But there were still some standout performances - including an impressive century from Kurtis Patterson which surely cemented his status switch from a contender to an Ashes lock.
The classy left-hander, who has been likened to England great Alastair Cook and made such a promising start to his Test career with a breakthrough century against Sri Lanka following back-to-back tons in the preceding warm-up game, hit his fifth century in six first-class games.
He finished on 134 from 229 balls against a Western Australian attack featuring highly-rated youngster Joel Paris and Matt Kelly.
Joe Burns continued his hot run of form with two half-centuries (60, 80) against a strong Victorian attack - boasting Ashes hopefuls Peter Siddle, Chris Tremain, Scott Boland and Jon Holland.
It backs up his 180 against Sri Lanka and surely books his flight to Heathrow this year.
Meanwhile, captain Tim Paine took five first-innings catches and scored 14 for Tasmania against South Australia, while Travis Head notched two half-centuries.
In great news for Australian cricket, pressure is finally being applied by the next tier of challengers.
Justin Langer demanded these guys bang the door down - and they've certainly started the second half of the season with some aggressive knocking.
Let's see if it can continue.
In his first first-class match since the Sandpapergate affair Cameron Bancroft carried his bat with a brilliant, unbeaten 138. It was the sort of stoic performance which earned him a Test call-up in the first place.
It was backed up with a stoic second innings 86 from 263 balls as Bancroft's teammates fell to pieces around him - taking his total to 621 deliveries faced for the match.
He places a value on his wicket and with three Shield games to go, Bancroft can't be discounted at making a stunning push for the Ashes squad.
One of the players who should be concerned about Bancroft's seamless return to the red-ball game is Marcus Harris - except that the Victorian stayed in the runs with a 95 against Queensland which was only ended by a contentious caught behind, and then a massive second-innings 150.
After a slightly meek end to the Test summer, it was well and truly a timely reminder to selectors of his skills at the top of the order.
With the return of David Warner expected to lock up one opening spot, the likes of Harris, Burns, Bancroft - and even Matt Renshaw, who had scores of 29 and 47 for the Bulls - are fighting to be his partner and for the role of back-up batsmen in the 17-man squad.
An option for the middle-order and all-rounder roles, Queensland's Marnus Labuschagne, had scores of 59 and 36 batting at first drop - and chipping in with five wicketless overs of his unpredictable leg spin.
Labuschagne could potentially sell himself as the back-up spin option in a squad in which Nathan Lyon is far and away the best spinner in the country - and unlikely to be under pressure for his spot in Justin Langer's XI.
But if Australia was to demand a specialist second spinner, rather than a bits-and-pieces guy like Labuschagne, then Jon Holland would be a contender - having played Test cricket as recently as last October against Pakistan.
The crafty left-armer fired on day four at Junction Oval, ripping through the Queensland middle order to claim 5-72.
His performance overshadowed that of teammates Peter Siddle (2-101, 0-50) and Chris Tremain (3-93, 2-39), who are in the fight for the final remaining fast bowling slot.
Likely back-up keeper Alex Carey is in India, but was snubbed from the opening T20 in favour of Peter Handscomb, who scored 13 in the opening T20 victory of the series.
Meanwhile, Mitchell Marsh had the worst week of all, with a groin injury ruling him out of Shield action this week - robbing him of a chance to press his case while Marcus Stoinis is on duty with Australia.
Who can leap from the pack this late in the piece? Well, there're options - particularly on the fast-bowling front.
While there's likely only one more spot up for grabs, that leaves things wide open for someone to bolt from the clouds to force the hand of selectors.
South Australia's Daniel Worrall is a popular choice, but remains sidelined with a back complaint - allowing Tasmania's Jackson Bird to take the spotlight, with the former Test quick taking 11 wickets, including a second-innings 7-59, to destroy the Redbacks.
Bird's unerring line and length is sent down at the sort of pace that can be effective on English wickets, so he's worth keeping an eye on.
The only batsman to really avoid Bird's carnage was opener Jake Weatherald, who posted a sizzling 150 - which included five sixes and 15 fours.
Speaking of former Test players, Nic Maddinson is making a belated Ashes push having hit back-to-back Shield centuries, including a solid 108 against Queensland - while Matthew Wade hit a crispy 77 to maintain his spot as the Shield's leading scorer.
Chadd Sayers is another exponent of the swinging ball and was expected to capitalise on the rounds with the Duke's ball - and he took 3-85 against Tasmania.
And then there's Michael Neser, who impressed with bat rather than ball with an unbeaten 75.