September 7, 2013

How Australia will prepare for the return Ashes

With lots and lots of limited-overs cricket. In India. Say what?

Players trying to make it to the Australian squad for the final two Tests will get to wow the selectors with their skills in the Big Bash League © Getty Images

Given England have now won three (Three! Count them damn you! Three!) straight Ashes series - two in England, one in Australia - and are looking fairly good to stick it to Australia again on home turf - Again! Damn you! - one would think Australia's cricket authorities would give the chosen Test XI the best possible preparation for a five-Test series and potentially 25 days of long-form cricket in Australia.

Instead they'll play one-dayers in India. Preparation for that will be T20s in India. Two and a half weeks after getting back from India, the first Test will be played in Brisbane.

Yes sirree, Bob Simpson! For three weeks from mid-September there's the Champions League T20 competition in India, featuring upwards of 20 Australian Test cricket aspirants. Straight after that Australia will play seven one-day internationals against India in India.

Eighteen days later, the first red ball of the first Ashes Test.

Now, it's a top country, India. Terrific food. I do enjoy that Kingfisher beer. And the locals know cricket like historians know things about the olden days.

But playing a one-day series in India as preparation for an Ashes series in Australia is as useful as playing one-dayers in Sharjah in 57-degree heat. It is wrong-headed. It is just wrong. Stuff it - it's insane.

And so these cricketers will come home from India, spend a couple days battling jet lag, unpacking and "freshening up" before settling in to prepare for the Ashes. Presumably they will play a Sheffield Shield game. But we don't know when because Cricket Australia hasn't released the draw. You can find out where Big Bash games are on, though. So there is that.

Those who remain in Australia to contest the venerable Sheffield Shield competition will do so against clubbies and kids, and not the elite of the Australian game. And if you want to turn out cricketers prepared for Test cricket, this cannot be.

England, meanwhile, will contest three first-class fixtures - a three-day match against Western Australia on the bouncy old WACA; a four-day match against Australia A on green and juicy Hobart; and another four-day match versus New South Wales on the spin-friendly Sydney Cricket Ground.

This, people, is what preparation for an Ashes Test series in Australia should look like. Not one-dayers in India. Not two weeks in the nets. Not a game or two of club and/or Shield cricket.

On top of that, after three Tests of the Ashes series, those not in the team will be trying to force their way into the final two Tests by playing… Big Bash League T20s. At least they are not in India. There is that.

The Sheffield Shield competition, meanwhile - for several decades a highly intense testing ground of a cricketer's Test cricket readiness - will trundle along from September some time with empty grounds hosting club cricketers and kids, and missing a host of players who should be auditioning for the Test team by playing off against other aspirants for the baggy-green cap.

This can't be just me.

Perhaps the Cricket Australia board and the likes of Mark Taylor, Rod Marsh, Greg Chappell and John Inverarity (a smart man who used to teach mathematics) know better what preparation for an Ashes campaign in Australia should look like compared to someone who last played fourth grade cricket in Canberra in 1989.

But surely it can't look like this.

Surely! Surely! Shirley! Australia's Test cricket aspirants should be playing four or five first-class four-day Sheffield Shield games before the Ashes series. Everyone in, from Michael Clarke down through the last contracted man and onwards into the last man chosen for the last state team. Everyone who wants to play Test cricket for Australia rumbling in the jungle, and the Test team picked on form.

You'd have Harris at Clarke, Siddle versus Hughes, Nathan Lyon tossing them up to Warner, Khawaja and Hughes, and any Academy kid who's good enough to have a crack. Young batsmen who make first-class centuries against Test-class bowlers would announce themselves. Old lags could validate themselves. The Australian public would know who's fair dinkum.

Few years ago a young Glenn McGrath earned much kudos for bouncing an ageing Allan Border and giving the old boy lip. Border gave it to him back. And marked the lanky Narromine boy down for later. Today a young McGrath would be bowling low full tosses to a Delhi Daredevil.

Why? Because boards and players and the god of television are bedazzled by the money of T20. The Sheffield Shield has been emasculated because of it. And Australia's lost three straight Ashes series because of that.

Say they ain't.

Matt Cleary writes for several Australian sports and travel magazines. He tweets here