Rehearsal? Tell that to Clarke
Australia's final home series before the twin peaks of India and England are to be scaled in 2013 has the Test team leaning towards the developmental. The retirement of Ricky Ponting opened up a place in the batting order for the third coming of Phillip Hughes, and on match eve future prospects outweighed Perth form as Mitchell Starc tipped out Mitchell Johnson as the third paceman alongside Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus.
The captain Michael Clarke, arguably the only member of the team currently at the unadulterated summit of his powers, does not wish to speak of the Sri Lanka series as a point in the calendar when Australia will try to groove a team for greater battles ahead. To do so would be to show scant respect for a visiting team with considerably more batting chops than the hosts, and the world's most prolific spinner over the past year.
But Clarke acknowledged that the national selector John Inverarity and the team performance manager Pat Howard each had one eye on the way ahead, something proven by the composition of the Bellerive XI. "For me, I'm not looking at the Ashes at all," Clarke said. "The reason Mitchell Starc's there is because he's been next in line in the queue for a while. He has performed really well in the shorter form of the game for Australia. He got one Test in Perth and got six-for and 70-odd with the bat as well, so it's not a bad start.
"Whoever we left out in this Test match it was always going to be a topic of conversation. People were always going to ask the question 'why did you leave him out?' John Inverarity, Mickey Arthur and Pat Howard need to continue to look to India and then to the Ashes. But for me as a player and for the rest of this team, we're focused on this Test match."
Johnson had been described by Inverarity as Australia's best bowler against South Africa at the WACA ground. But instead of being the third local survivor of the last Test against Sri Lanka in Hobart in 2007, he is on the plane back to Brisbane to play for the Brisbane Heat in the BBL. His place in the scheme of things has been underlined - a depth bowler and experienced hand, who at the age of 31 has less to gain from facing Sri Lanka than the 22-year-old Starc.
Ed Cowan, David Warner, Hughes and Shane Watson meanwhile comprise the latest version of Australia's top four. Their task is to give due protection to the more accomplished bats of Clarke and Michael Hussey while also growing in confidence and consistency themselves. Clarke's reluctance to move up from No. 5 is warranted by his record in the position, leaving those above him to be shuffled as Australia's top three was similarly tossed about in the 1990s when Mark and Steve Waugh were unwilling to move from Nos. 4 and 5 in the order.
"If you look at our top three they are all very different players, they all have great strengths and have all scored a hundred for Australia," Clarke said of Warner, Cowan and Hughes. "There is plenty of talent there, it is about owning your position, making the most of it, grabbing hold of this opportunity to both hands and they have the chance to build a long successful career whether it be opening the batting, batting three, batting four, all of our top four have seen success at this level, they are good enough to be here and now it's about grabbing hold of that chance."
For Hughes, the return to Australia's batting order has been accompanied by plenty of hype, and no little irony at the Hobart scene of his ignominious exit from the Test team against New Zealand last year. Clarke said the experience of being dropped and coming back had helped him return a more hardened cricketer and self-aware man. While his progression will only be proven by runs, Hughes' confident but relaxed visage has been noted this week.
"At the time, the time you are dropped is the most disappointing of your career, no doubt about it, for me it was the worst feeling I've ever had playing cricket," Clarke said. "The realisation that all I ever wanted was to play cricket for Australia and to have it taken away from me because of my poor performances breaks your heart. But when I look back now on my career it was the best thing to happen to me, it allowed me to go back to my state and work really hard on my game without the expectation and the consistent media around me.
"Fortunately for me I got a second chance. If anything, it gives you more hunger and makes you realise how much you want to play cricket for Australia and makes you realise how tough the game is. You have to work really hard to stay at the top consistently and the sign of a great player is longevity. I have a lot of respect for the guys who have played over 100 Test matches because it means you have been consistently very good for a long period of time."
As a team, Australia still strive to be consistently very good. If they are expected to defeat Sri Lanka, the series result will not be the ultimate marker of their advance towards the goal. Rather, Clarke said he wanted to see improvement on what was displayed against South Africa, though Mahela Jaywardene's team can boast neither the record nor the ranking of Graeme Smith's men.
"If we rock up and do what we did against South Africa we won't be getting better," Clarke said. "That conversation is had consistently around our group that the opposition is irrelevant in regards to how we judge ourselves as players. You have to be getting better individually and as a team. Our goal is not to come out and play the same way against Sri Lanka as we did against South Africa.
"We have to learn from the last series, take the positives which I thought there were a lot. And the areas we need to get better, we need to make sure we are. I'm confident if we can improve on the series against South Africa, we'll continue to have success."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here