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‘He’s got the game, no doubt’ – Henry Hunt’s next stepping stone towards Test selection

‘He’s got the game, no doubt’ – Henry Hunt’s next stepping stone towards Test selection

With a Test career potentially beckoning, perhaps accelerated after David Warner flagged his swansong from the format, a typically composed Henry Hunt remains unflappable when quizzed over his rising prospects.

Much like his indefatigable batting, where the 25-year-old relishes occupying the crease in the mould of hard-nosed batters from a more sedate era, Hunt prefers to dead bat expectations.

“No. It’s too far ahead,” he told ESPNcricinfo when asked if he felt more expectation after Warner recently revealed that he might retire from Test cricket within the next 12 months.

“I don’t normally listen too much to that stuff. I’m just trying to play good cricket and score runs for the Redbacks. That’s my job. If that stuff happens, it’ll happen organically. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’ve just got to keep playing good cricket.”

Hunt is adamant that he hasn’t had conversations with national selectors on where he sits in the pecking order, but his emerging standing was underlined with selection in the Prime Minister’s XI squad for their four-day match against West Indies in Canberra starting on Wednesday.

The day-night match presents opportunities for Australia’s fringe players ahead of a gruelling Test schedule marked by overseas tours next year to India and England before what could be a transition.

Australia’s hierarchy have been planning regeneration for an ageing team, perhaps likely to come after next year’s Ashes, with both opening positions potentially up for grabs. Warner and Usman Khawaja are in their mid-30s although their successors have been difficult to pinpoint.

Before Khawaja’s remarkable transformation as an opener during last summer’s Ashes, Warner had struggled to find a regular partner in a revolving door.

After a breakout 2021-22 Sheffield Shield season, where he hit three tons and shared player of the year honours with Victoria’s Travis Dean, Hunt became firmly in the sights of the national selectors who rewarded him with an Australia A tour of Sri Lanka mid-year.

Particularly honing playing spin in foreign conditions, Hunt posted a brilliant century after a pair in the first four-day game in a confidence boost ahead of what loomed as a pivotal Shield season.

In his first match of the season, Hunt defied Victoria with an unbeaten 97 off 326 balls in the fourth innings to ensure South Australia drew the contest against the odds.

It was the type of steely performance, a defensive masterclass marked by courage and patience, that strengthened his case for being at the head of the Test queue.

“He’s got the game [for Test cricket]. There’s no doubt about that,” said South Australia coach Jason Gillespie.

“He’s learning all the time. He asks a lot of questions. He works really, really hard at his game. He’s very specific in his preparations, how he goes about it. He applies himself. He has a real clear plan, commits to it and shows fight.”

But after those heroics, Hunt went off the boil against Tasmania and New South Wales with low scores across those Shield matches.

It put some pressure on the stand-in captain – who has been filling in for Travis Head – ahead of struggling South Australia, mired at the bottom in recent seasons, facing the tough journey to the WACA against reigning champions Western Australia and their hostile pace attack.

South Australia, accordingly, were thrashed by an innings and 28 runs with their batters unable to handle the famous pitch’s pace and bounce.

Except Hunt, who top-scored in their first innings with 71 before watching his team-mates crumble in the second innings against searing pace from Lance Morris in the shadows late on day three.

Morris bowled frighteningly quick, so rapid that you couldn’t blame middle-order batter Jake Lehmann for looking rather spooked. It was no surprise he didn’t last long to the in-form quick bowling around 150km/h with Morris tipped to be part of Australia’s T20I renewal.

But Hunt impressively curbed Morris and was a class above his team-mates. He judged the length almost perfectly, evaded piercing short balls aimed at his head – being particularly nimble on his feet at 5 foot 9 – and pounced on rare loose balls to play a lone hand.

It wasn’t pretty, though. Hunt copped several blows amid fiery bowling from a WA pace attack also including the underrated Matt Kelly – who unleashes yorkers to devastating effect – and towering Cameron Gannon.

As he’s increasingly demonstrating, Hunt isn’t easily rattled leading to a riveting battle between him and Morris, pitting two rising stars against each other.

“He judged deliveries really well and the way he left good balls was impressive,” Morris said of Hunt. “He has the temperament that can translate to Test cricket. He’s someone you can really imagine succeeding at that level.”

Hunt did what none of his fellow main batters could and defied Morris and co. to make it through to the close of play before South Australia crashed to an inevitable defeat just 45 minutes into the final day.

With little support, and frustrated at his team’s predicament, Hunt fell uncharacteristically to a loose shot but had already demonstrated his all-round skill in countering the spicy WACA conditions after months earlier scoring a century in Sri Lanka.

“He’s being exposed to different environments against different bowlers and he works it out,” Gillespie said.

Two days later, Hunt scored a maiden List A century in the Marsh Cup to cap a successful individual week in Perth where his leadership under pressure also shone.

In the Shield match, South Australia had a nightmare day two starting with a horror first innings collapse before watching WA openers Cameron Bancroft and Sam Whiteman smash a massive partnership against a listless Redbacks attack.

Showcasing much more energy and focus, South Australia impressively fought back in the field on day three led by Hunt who inspired a brief rally.

“Being in such a difficult position tests the best of captains let alone a new one,” said Gillespie, who described South Australia’s second day performance as “unacceptable”. “The way he managed the bowlers and field, while implementing the plan, I thought was outstanding. It showed strong leadership to help summon that fightback.”

As he prepares to return to Canberra, where he spent some of his formative cricket years having grown up in the regional NSW town of Cowra, Hunt is eyeing a big score after his seven first-class centuries has yielded a high of 134.

With unwavering concentration and an appetite to bat for long periods, Hunt has been left frustrated with his inability to go on with the business.

“I’ve got some hundreds but nothing over 150, which has been disappointing,” he said. “The biggest thing for me going forward is to make some big hundreds.”

If he does do that in Canberra or beyond, Hunt will start mounting a compelling case that might see him in the national frame sooner rather than later.

“All he can do is keep putting runs on the board and create selection headaches for the national selectors. Selection will take care of itself,” Gillespie said. “He’s a fine young man and a fine player.”

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