As the metal songbirds Staind once wrote, it’s been a while.
If you can not really remember the state of men’s test cricket in Australia, you are not out of the queue.
Since January 6, 2020 (a simpler time before we knew of the impending pandemic), the team has played exactly four Test matches; all against India last summer.
But suddenly we have an Ashes series on our shores and it would be an understatement to say that the team lacks long form of cricket training.
So where were we and where are we with the biggest series in cricket just a week away?
What happened last summer?
After running India for just 36 while winning the first test, it only went downhill for the Australian test side.
India were without * deep breathing * Virat Kohli, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Ravi Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Jasprit Bumrah and Umesh Yadav for all or some of the series.
They called up five debutants during the four tests and were virtually unrecognizable by the end of the summer, but still managed to complete a famous 2-1 victory that broke the Gabbattoir for the first time to seal the series.
Former England captain Michael Vaughan later joked on Fox Cricket: “There is no shame in losing to India’s third XI.”
Some of the highlights included:
- Australia started the summer with Matthew Wade and Joe Burns as their opening pair, switching to David Warner and Will Pucovski, then Warner and Marcus Harris. Pucovski scored the top scorer among openers with 62 on his debut.
- Kohli went home after the first test, where Ajinkya Rahane stepped in as captain so well that it sparked speculation that King Kohli could get better as a specialist dough.
- Steve Smith could not get out of single digits in the first four innings, so he had 131 and 81 in the third Test, apparently despite.
- Indian players were racistly abused from the stands where TV cameras and SCG security identified the wrong people.
- After reducing India to 6-186 in their first innings in the final Test, first-timers Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur knocked India out of trouble, getting them within spitting distance of Australia’s score before Rishabh Pant won them the series by 89 not out. in the hunt for 329 races.
- Nathan Lyon took just nine wickets in four Tests, while player in the Pat Cummins series took 21.
- Marnus Labuschagne scored the top scorer for the series with 426 runs to 53.25 and was one of just three players (with Smith and Rahane) to score centuries – all with one each.
What has happened since then?
Basically everything except the test cricket.
After the final test ended on January 19, Australia’s men had a year almost exclusively dedicated to Twenty20 cricket in the run-up to the World Cup, which started awkwardly but culminated in glory.
When they came straight out of the tests against India, they jumped over the ditch to be beaten 3-2 by New Zealand.
They then traveled to the Caribbean for a 4-1 demolition of the West Indies in July, saved some face by winning two of three ODIs against them, and then sent a starless team to Bangladesh to be defeated 4-1 again over seven days. Four wins in 13 matches across two formats against two teams in one month.
Oh, and under all that, Justin Langer’s position as a coach was questioned and criticized from almost every angle.
All this led to a T20 World Cup campaign that managed an English shellacking before it matured perfectly to end up with an unexpected maiden T20 for men.
Shortly after the surprising highlight, Australia lost its test captain and got a new one.
Why has there been such a test drought?
It has not been easy to get international athletes to come to Australia with such strict quarantine requirements in the last two years.
So it was a challenge to get touring sides out, but the long stretches without the test cricket came anyway in Australia’s winter and autumn. This is a matter of the Aussies not touring.
It seems that the focus on the T20 World Cup has meant that planning long-distance cricket has not been a priority.
A test trip in Bangladesh, which was to take place in June last year, was canned, said Cricket Australia (CA) because of COVID. So in February, CA controversially discarded a planned series in South Africa due to another wave in the country that made Cricket South Africa furious in the process.
And the one-off test against Afghanistan, which was due to start on November 27, has been suspended while we wait for the Taliban to clean up their human rights. It should be any day now.
Oh, and if you think it was impossible to play test cricket during that period, then this summer’s enemy, England, played 20 matches in the same 23-month span where Australia played four.
Not as many openings as you might think on the way into the ashes
Which all brings us to now.
With so little red ball cricket played lately, it’s hardly surprising that we can be a little confused about what’s going on, because there simply have not been enough games to move the needle much in the last 11 months.
The last male test XI was: David Warner, Marcus Harris, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Matthew Wade, Cameron Green, Tim Paine, Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon and Josh Hazlewood.
Wade was the only member of the team to miss out on a place in the 15-man squad for the Ashes, with Usman Khawaja, Travis Head, Jhye Richardson, Michael Neser and Mitch Swepson added. Then Tim Paine stepped down, leaving an opening for Australia A team members Alex Carey and Josh Inglis.
Warner, despite having only three centuries from his last 29 Test laps, is with. Like Labuschagne, Smith, Cummins, Lyon and Hazlewood.
Starc is probably also on that list at least for the first Test, but he had a tough game the last time he pulled on whites, taking only three wickets over the last two Tests against India. Lyon took only nine in the series, but Aussie spin opportunities are thin on the ground while Starc gets Neser, Richardson and Sean Abbott to sniff around for third-place sailor.
Speaking of not taking many wickets, Green is a lock after impressing with the bat in his first Test series and backing up with scores of 106, 61 and 53 this Shield season, but the wait continues on his first Test bar, and wickets at the national level do not exactly come in droves either.
Opener, midfielder and wicketkeeper are up for grabs
That leaves seats two, five and seven in a row open.
With Pucovski’s return from concussion delayed by worrying persistent symptoms, Harris and evergreen Usman Khawaja were the obvious candidates for the opening spot along with Warner, but it looks like the sitting Harris has it sewn.
Khawaja is number two in this Shield season with two tons compared to Harris, but the Victorian’s first-class centuries in the English summer and the fact that he is five years younger than Khawaja, who was dropped under Ashes in 2019, probably gave him inside track.
The Queenslander’s solid test average of 40.66 jumps up to 96.80 in his seven innings as a test opener, compared to Harriss’ 23.77 in 19 test innings without reaching the three-digit mark, but Khawaja is in a midterm battle with Travis Head.
Head has scores of 163, 101 and 55 in Sheffield Shield this season, as well as 230 of 127 in the domestic one-day tournament. He also has two test tons and seven half-centuries in 31 test rounds, with an average just under 40.
A bit like Khawaja during the 2019 Ashes, Head was unlucky to be dropped last summer, with Wade retaining his spot in the XI after doing voters a favor by standing for an injured Warner to start the series.
Meanwhile, Carey has been Paine’s heir for a few years, apparently kept out of the test team solely by the big “C” next to Paine’s name. 18 months ago, he would not even have been an issue, but voters have fallen in love with Inglis recently.
A training game starting today will give an indication of where the voters are leaning, but we will find out in a week, exactly what their plan is, and over the next few months we will discover whether four tests in two years were too few.