SL Tests offer Australia clues to tackling future challenges
Australia have retained the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy. Was it ever going to be any other way? In Hobart, Sri Lanka showed enough fight to drag Michael Clarke's men into the final session of day five. At the MCG they barely reached the halfway point of the Test. In the stands, spectators were surprised at the rapidity of the finish. Some were only there because they feared the match would not reach day four, when they had intended to come. It was a wise change of plans.
Such a one-sided victory might give Australia's fans reason to celebrate, but what does it really mean for an Australian outfit that next year flies to India for four Tests and then faces the prospect of back-to-back Ashes battles? In that context, the victories themselves mean little. In 2009-10, Australia won seven of eight Tests at home and in New Zealand, but that was irrelevant when they lost in India later that year and were then obliterated by England.
Still, over the past two Tests, Australia have learnt some useful lessons. Some are new - that Jackson Bird is good enough for Test cricket, for example. Others - including that Shane Watson's body cannot handle significant bowling loads - were timely reminders of past realisations. The challenge for John Inverarity and his selection panel, and for Clarke and Mickey Arthur in their management of the side, is to sift through the lessons to find those with significance for the coming year.
The emergence of Bird is unquestionably one that is relevant to the Ashes. A tall, accurate bowler who works with both seam and swing, moving the ball both ways, Bird might not be the next Glenn McGrath but Australia will be happy if he is the next Stuart Clark. He was unfazed by the big Boxing Day crowd and his building of pressure was critical. It was a Ben Hilfenhaus role, and he did it better than Hilfenhaus has this summer. He should be strongly considered for the tour of England.
So should Mitchell Starc. The way he bowled on the final day against Sri Lanka in Hobart would have troubled any batsmen from any Test side. His yorkers were dangerous, he moved the ball in the air, he attacked the stumps and he bowled Australia to victory. Not that Australia are short of quality fast bowlers. Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle, James Pattinson, Pat Cummins and Ryan Harris will all be jostling for Ashes roles.
As will Mitchell Johnson. How relevant was his Man-of-the-Match performance at the MCG? Moderately. He was fast, aggressive, awkward and impressively accurate. But few batting line-ups would handle such an assault as poorly as Sri Lanka's batsmen did in this game. Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook will be a vastly different challenge.
Johnson works as part of Australia's rotation system. Bring him in, set him loose, rest him. And the rotation system works when the bowling depth is there, and against weaker opposition. It is hard to imagine Australia resting fit fast bowlers during an Ashes tour. How would this more mature Johnson handle the pressure of being part of Australia's first-choice attack throughout an Ashes series? That remains to be seen, and no piles of wickets against Sri Lanka can tell us.
Australia have also learnt that Watson can still not be relied upon to bowl a significant number of overs. In Hobart, he sent down 47.4 overs, easily his biggest workload in a Test. Surprise, surprise, he broke down in Melbourne. Just what to do with Watson remains one of Australia's biggest quandaries. He is good enough for Test cricket. He is the vice-captain. But is he good enough if he doesn't bowl? He would need to lift his output of runs. If he does bowl, he provides a useful wicket-taking option, but also forces batting reshuffles every time he is injured. There is no easy answer. Most likely, Clarke will use his medium-pace more sparingly than ever.
Clarke also needs to think about what he asks of Nathan Lyon. At the MCG, Lyon was almost irrelevant, bowling 7.4 overs and only removing tailenders. In Hobart, his final-day bowling was too fast, lacked guile, and allowed Sri Lanka's batsmen to defend with ease. He bowled the same way in Adelaide against South Africa. Before Boxing Day, he said he was in constant dialogue with Clarke about his speed. The captain needs to encourage Lyon back to the flight he displayed earlier in his Test career. Unlike the fast men, his big challenges will come in India more than England, and against quality players of spin. Lyon has some work to do.
It is significant that the Australians have included Glenn Maxwell in the squad for the Sydney Test. If Lyon continues to bowl a flatter, containing trajectory, and if Maxwell shows he can do the same job, Lyon will be under pressure. Who would you rather have in an Ashes series - a containing offspinner with a first-class batting average of 11.96, or one averaging 42? That's why Lyon must regain his wicket-taking style. He is the best spinner in the country, he just needs to remind everyone of it. Maxwell's challenge next week is to show that he can be more than a Steve Smith type bits-and-pieces player.
On the batting front, the Sri Lanka series has so far taught Australia little. Clarke has continued to show why he is the No. 1 batsman in the world, but he will be judged on whether he can maintain that form away from home next year. Phillip Hughes has had insufficient opportunities to prove himself in his third incarnation as a Test batsman. Ed Cowan and David Warner have continued to develop and Michael Hussey remains in outstanding form. But runs against a struggling Sri Lanka attack have little relevance to the upcoming challenges.
At the SCG, Australia's management needs to have one eye on the India and England battles. That is not disrespectful to Sri Lanka. This series is decided. It has offered some useful lessons, and some irrelevant ones. And over five days in Sydney next week, Australia have one last chance to learn.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here