Cast your mind back less than twelve months ago, and Australian cricket was in crisis. After being handily demolished by South Africa in consecutive Tests, the entire nation entered into a prolonged period of hand-wringing, as such questions as, “is hanging too good for Rod Marsh?” and “who the fuck is Joe Mennie?” dominated the public mood. Whilst everyone remembers Australia’s subsequent renaissance, ably led by all-action superhero Nic Maddinson, the drama had been precipitated by an abysmal lead up to the Test series. After being trounced in Sri Lanka, most of the team buggered off for one of the great ODI tours of South Africa, before returning home for a mere two domestic fixtures, one of which was played with a pink ball, to warm up for the international calendar. Understandably, the players were horribly underdone and were ruthlessly exposed by a far better prepared South African outfit. So heading into an Ashes summer, the most important of them all, surely Cricket Australia have learned their lesson and laid the foundations for reclaiming the urn by allowing the players an uninterrupted lead-up into the first Test? Have they fuck.
Given Cricket Australia’s scheduling priorities, you have to wonder just how highly they value home Ashes success. Do they value it higher than, say, spending a month in India playing meaningless ODI and T20 games? Because that is what the bulk of Australia’s team will be doing on the eve of the series, instead of being back home, getting adjusted to red ball cricket. Admittedly, they won’t be missing out on any First Class matches whilst they are away, earning their employers oodles of money playing a series nobody except the Cricket Australia bean-counters care about, but that is only because of the already confused domestic schedule, which has to fit the truncated Matador Cup in somewhere.
And so, instead, there will be three Shield rounds to get players adjusted to playing red ball cricket. Except, of course, one of those games will be with a pink ball. So just the two rounds then. Which themselves will be turned into a media frenzy as Australia decide just who the hell will keep wicket during the Ashes, who the numbers three and six will be and exactly how do you fit Starc, Hazlewood, Cummins, Pattinson and Lyon into the one team? They’d better hope it doesn’t rain at all throughout the months of October and November.
The Ashes, therefore, will be another example of Cricket Australia trying to squeeze too much into too small a window. The players should never have been sent to India on the eve of this series, even if it meant they were only playing domestic Grade cricket instead. At least that’s with a red ball, and in relevant conditions. The Bangladesh series suffered for the same reason, with the team woefully underprepared to play a series Cricket Australia had to be forced into accepting in the first place, ahead of their preferred itinerary of yet more meaningless white ball cricket. Test cricket is being squeezed into the margins by an administration that increasingly sees T20 cricket as the future of the sport, and in particular where the big bucks are to be made.
Of course, Cricket Australia retains one feather in its cap, in that it gets to fuck the visiting English team’s preparation over just as much. England are currently slated to play three warm-up games, one against a “Western Australian XI”, and two against a “Cricket Australia XI”. Want to know how dead the pitches will be for those hit outs? Very. How many tearaway quicks do you think CA will let the tourists warm up against? None. Instead, it will be the usual menagerie of youth players, with barely a First Class appearance to their name, cobbled together to ensure that the tourists are as woefully prepared as possible to face the Australian pace attack at the Gabba. We highly expect to see Will Sutherland get a trundle against the tourists, because nepotism.
Having suffered from the same run around on their last Ashes tour, at least England should know what to expect this time, and much like Australia before their tour of India, have likely made their own arrangements ahead of the series. They’d be stupid not to. But as many pundits are already writing off England’s chances, the woeful preparation for the home team is one factor that has been overlooked. In hindsight, the injuries to Starc and Hazelwood, which mean they miss the Indian tour, have proven to be highly fortuitous, as at least they will get an unimpeded preparation for the domestic summer. In the same vein, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a number of Test players leave India early, with spurious injuries of their own, or simply ‘tiredness’, further underlining the utter absurdity of that particular series.
Either way, we can look forward to the spectacle of two relatively under-done teams coming head to head at the Gabba in late November. In a perfect world, we’d see Cricket Australia bin the tour of India and, rather than making everything beholden to the Big Bash, move the Matador Cup to late December/early January, where it will be somewhat relevant ahead of the ODI’s, and bring the Shield season forward a few weeks. Giving England a proper pre-series workout, against an actual Australia A side as opposed to one in name only, would also be something of a novelty, and provide some good experience for actual fringe players like Jason Behrendorff, Chadd Sayers and Shaun Marsh (see what we did there?). In short, anything that would indicate that the administrators acknowledge that an Ashes series is the pinnacle of the game, and the only thing this summer fans really care about.