Low key, high stakes
Striding the practice grounds at Southampton among Australia A's players is the unmistakeable figure of the national selector John Inverarity, his shock of white hair rising above a school of baseball caps. Alongside him, in the dual roles of team manager and selector on duty, is Rod Marsh. Conversing also is Troy Cooley, no stranger to England and the senior man at the Centre of Excellence in Brisbane. Hitting slips catches is another recognisable figure, with a gait similar to his more famous father: the former Tasmania captain Dan Marsh.
For what is a low-key tour late in the English summer, this amounts to a notable gathering of Australian cricket's most influential mentors. Their presence is a pointed reminder of how much store is being placed in the information and confidence to be gleaned from this tour, ahead of the 2013 Ashes. It is the first developmental tour of England by Australia since an Under 19s visit in 1999, and the first 'A' tour of sorts since 1995.
Back then, the Young Australia team led by Stuart Law included first-time England visitors the calibre of Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer and Michael Kasprowicz. Matthew Hayden was there too, having already journeyed to England with the 1993 Ashes tourists. This formidable array of talent would win 11 and lose only three of 16 matches, foreshadowing future Test match success in England in 1997 and 2001.
Seventeen years later and the Australia A side led by Ed Cowan is not so flushed with talent, nor confidence on English shores. The last two Ashes visits have resulted in defeat, and Australia's batting stocks in particular are considered to be at a low. Inverarity's selection panel is casting far and wide in their search for players capable of taking up the mantle soon to be left by the likes of Ponting and Michael Hussey, and the results on this tour will play a large part in helping them make up their minds.
Cowan's goal is a quartet of victories in matches against Derbyshire, Durham and the England Lions, starting in Derby on Friday. To achieve this would be to generate confidence among young players who were teenagers or younger the last time Australia claimed the Ashes in England, while also adding significantly to their knowledge of the northern summer, the Dukes ball and their prospective opposition in 2013.
"On A tours there can be a development aspect and guys looking to put individual performances on the board, but the big focus for the trip is to get back into a winning habit in England," Cowan told ESPNcricinfo. "That will put us in better stead than guys having a bit more of a focus on themselves, ensuring that the team does well means the individuals will look after themselves.
"That confidence comes from winning and there is another aspect to the tour one year before an Ashes series, and that is information collection. That data is tainted significantly if it's not collected at the right intensity. So it is important that individuals get used to the feel of playing cricket in England, but one way you get used to that feel is playing good cricket, good team cricket."
The scheduling of an A tour to England is a major indicator that Cricket Australia's focus is back squarely on the Ashes, after a period in which the gaining of experience in the less familiar subcontinent was considered the more pressing challenge. Numerous tours, by A teams, Under-19s sides and Centre of Excellence intakes, helped to demystify India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan, while those seeking UK grounding were welcome to resort to county or league cricket.
But the tightening of Visa requirements in recent years, coupled with the decline in Australia's results against England, has meant that CA can no longer look towards a visit to England with anything like the comfortable smugness that grew across four consecutive away Ashes wins from 1989 to 2001. In 2009 many of Australia's tourists were unfamiliar with English climes, and this tour will go some way towards ensuring no-one in the 2013 touring team is similarly naïve.
"It's probably been odd that there haven't been more A-style tours or Under-19 style tours, but that's on the back of more open immigration and guys coming over here and playing county cricket or league cricket and getting their experience that way," Cowan said. "I think because the doors have gone up a little bit on that, and considering the last two Ashes series over here, I think it is a really good idea to get guys up to speed playing cricket over here.
"When you look at the A setup over the years it has been directed towards places where guys don't play a lot of cricket generally. There's been a lot of subcontinental tours, and a lot of winter cricket in Australia to get guys up to speed. That Young Australia tour was in 1995 and the last Under-19s tour was in 1999, so it is a long time between any non-Test team playing in England - it's a pretty important development aspect, but winning is most important for guys to get up to speed."
Australia's Twenty20 captain George Bailey is on tour, but the man with the official title of deputy to Cowan is the batsman Peter Forrest, he of a desperately poor ODI series for Australia against England earlier this month. Forrest's lack of runs against England's limited-overs team was partly marked down to his lack of batting time in the lead-up, but the selectors are eager to observe how he responds during the A tour, with the benefit of an extra month in the UK.
"You can judge guys over a long period of time and Pete's a high quality cricketer who didn't score as many runs in the ODI series as he would've wished," Cowan said. "He's really looking forward to taking a step back from that spotlight of international cricket and getting back to spending some time in the crease, being able to build an innings, all the things that can be hard coming into an ODI series off the back of no cricket.
"Part of cricket and becoming a good cricketer is responding to challenges, and this is probably a point where a little challenge has been thrown up to Pete and I've got no doubt that he'll overcome that. The challenge of batting at the top of the order is overcoming failure and finding a way to score runs in different conditions. He'll be better for that experience and I'm expecting big runs for him on the tour."
As for Cowan, the tour is almost as critical personally as it will be collectively. Having established himself as a part of the Australia Test team without quite making the runs his position demands, he will have valuable training for the distractions of the international summer by juggling his own batting with the demands of leading a young team.
"Test cricket is not just about what goes on in the middle, so to have a few things happening away from solely batting, it is good practice," Cowan said. "It's something that I'm looking forward to, the whole leadership aspect is something I haven't had a whole lot of opportunity to do, but something that I feel as though I can contribute with.
"Not just in a team sense but actually helping guys get better and really create a culture within the A team that can mirror the Test team and that guys moving through into either the Test or ODI teams have a really strong sense of team. I think the culture of Australian cricket is strong, from my experiences in the Test team, but there are probably areas where it could get stronger.
"Culture is a strong word that is being thrown around a lot at the moment, and the keys to a strong culture are getting the right leaders and good people in the right places. So people like George or Dan have fantastic information but there are other strong leaders in this A team and Australian cricket. A couple of state captains, even guys who've played Test cricket like Mitchell Johnson, will be looked upon as leaders with a job to do.
"Good cultures aren't created by a single person, they're created by lots of people coming together and wanting to move in the right direction."
Those people include Inverarity, Cooley and the Marshes. Theirs is a fervent hope this tour will allow Australian cricket to look towards next year's Ashes with far more optimism than dread.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here