Clarke keen to measure Australia progress
If next year's Ashes are to be the ultimate measure of how Australia have improved since being humiliated by England last time around, then this ODI series makes for a decent midterm exam.
Following an innings defeat in the fifth Ashes Test of 2010-11, the stand-in captain Michael Clarke had demanded that his team learn from their English conquerors. "I think 100% we have to learn from what England did this series," he said. "Their performance, not only with bat and ball, but in the field, was outstanding for a five-Test series. There's a great starting point to be able to turn up every day for five Tests, to perform as well as they did."
Eighteen months on, a smarter and more confident Australia have their first chance to weigh themselves against the England side that humbled them, and to find out whether or not their changes in the interim have been fruitful. It may not be a Test series, but this contest will provide a valuable chance for both teams to scope each other's strengths and weaknesses between Test series, and also indulge in the odd spot of psychological point-scoring at the height of the English summer.
Before leading the team in the kind of full-bodied training session that has typified his time as captain, Clarke said the tourists had improved greatly in their intensity and work ethic when preparing for matches. The new support structure that now features the coach Mickey Arthur, the fielding coach Steve Rixon, the batting coach Justin Langer and the interim bowling coach Ali de Winter is a far more well-directed and focused group than the one that staggered through the 2010-11 southern hemisphere summer.
"I think our work ethic has been the standout for me, the way the boys are training," Clarke said of where the team had improved since last meeting England. "I guess our coaches are pushing us now, every training session is very enjoyable. You walk away from every net session feeling like you have improved some part of your game. They are tough sessions, that's for sure, so that's probably the area I think we've focused on. We're getting better every day with our preparation.
"With hard work and a lot of training you hope your skills improve. I guess we'll see, over the next couple of weeks, how we go when we're under pressure against a very good and confident one-day team."
While neither side would go as far as saying this series will have a bearing on the Ashes in England next year, it should not be forgotten that between the 2009 series and its return bout in Australia, England took the opportunity to win in two encounters in 2010. Paul Collingwood led the Twenty20 team to success over Australia in the World T20 final in the Caribbean, before Andrew Strauss led his 50-over side to a 3-2 win at home. By contrast, Australia have excelled at winning the ODIs contested immediately after the destination of the Ashes has been decided - in each case a rather more hollow triumph.
Tim Bresnan, among others, was aided by the experience of getting one over the Australians in 2010-11 and the 19-year-old pace prodigy Pat Cummins is one of numerous tourists looking for a similar grounding on this trip.
"Pat's a very nice kid and he loves his cricket so he'll be out there just to try and enjoy himself and do as well as he possibly can," Clarke said. "Like a lot of the guys who haven't experienced UK conditions it's going to be a little different for him. It's going to take some time to adjust and see what conditions are like, but so far, so good. We've played the two practice games - one against Leicester, one against Essex - and we've done ok, so hopefully we can hang on to that momentum and take it into tomorrow's game.
"All the guys on this tour are looking forward to an opportunity. We have got 15 good one-day players, young and enthusiastic, but unfortunately you can only pick 11. We'll wait and see what we think our best XI is for every given game. At the moment, when we are selecting the team for tomorrow it will be about tomorrow and not looking any further down the track. We've got some good, young fast bowlers who are all keen to get an opportunity."
The major intrigue about the Australian team surrounds the batting, as Clarke and Arthur weigh up their options. The final warm-up match against Essex had George Bailey batting at No. 3 behind David Warner and Shane Watson, with Matthew Wade a very capable No. 7. Watson may yet drop back down to three, with Wade promoted, while Peter Forrest waits in the wings should Bailey slip up. Clarke said the shuffling of the batting order on tour so far reflected his desire to give each player a chance in the middle.
"It's about giving guys a hit, that's what we've tried to do," he said. "We've had a fair bit of rain as well, so a few training sessions have been put indoors. In the games we've played it was just about making sure everyone got some runs under their belt, or a bat."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here