Australia make sacrifices to focus on Test rebuilding
During an era in which the Test team slipped to No. 5 and the Ashes were humiliatingly lost at home, Tim Nielsen spoke with pride of retaining Australia's No. 1 ODI ranking. Whenever he did so, Nielsen sounded rather like a sea captain happy to reach home port in a lifeboat after his ship had sunk.
The final time Nielsen said it, in Sri Lanka last year, he had already paid for the Test team's decline with his job. Apart from the former Cricket Australia chairman Jack Clarke, few in Australian cricket appeared to derive any satisfaction whatsoever from remaining No. 1 in the one-day format. Of itself, the ranking meant little, particularly when it was no longer validated by retention of the World Cup. Its value, relative to the equivalent perch in Test matches, is minor.
Ten months later and the team's heaviest ever defeat in a bilateral ODI series will cause plenty of ugly headlines and a spell of navel-gazing about how much ground has actually been gained on England since the last Ashes. Yet it is possible to conclude that this tour is less a sign of Australian cricket's malaise than a side-effect of the national team's more streamlined priorities. While Nielsen's successor, Mickey Arthur, has raged against how his "submissive" team have been "bullied" by England and not shown enough "mongrel", their 4-0 drubbing has taken place at least partly because much of the team's focus and resources have now been funnelled more directly into the development of the Test XI.
The Argus Review made patently clear that greater prominence had to be given to Test cricket, from a "premium" of payments given to Test players to the prioritising of continuity in selections and coaching appointments for Tests over ODI or Twenty20 assignments. In fact, some passages of the review suggested that ODI and T20 matches be used as a proving ground for players of the future, and the squad chosen for these five matches against England had a decidedly developmental slant.
The selection panel, led by John Inverarity and including the captain, Michael Clarke, resolved last summer to use the ODI team as a way of testing the abilities of players who may then graduate to the Test team. They were chosen ahead of others who might be better suited to Australia's ODI XI but with flaws more likely to be exposed at Test level. Earlier in the series, Inverarity stated his intention.
"We made a decision six months ago that if through lack of form or retirement or injury there was a place in the team, we don't want these blokes making their international debuts at Lord's in a Test match, so we've got them going," he said. "They've tasted, they've toured, they know the guys, and they're familiar."
This is why a plodding batsman like Peter Forrest has been given an extended run in limited-overs games, for his deliberate approach may one day prove useful in Tests. George Bailey and the recently recalled Steve Smith are another two to find themselves in the ODI team with an eye on future contests in other formats. Perhaps the most obvious casualty of this new priority is Callum Ferguson, who is likely to be waiting quite some time to add to his 663 ODI runs at 41.43 due to a technique deemed unsuitable for five-day examinations. Cameron White's card seems similarly marked.
Of the more speculative choices on tour, Bailey has fared best by a distance, rounding off his efforts with a sparky 46 from 41 balls to ensure the visitors had something to bowl at in the gloom at Old Trafford. He will follow it up by staying on for Australia A's matches against the England Lions, and further decent scores there will go a long way to pressing his case for an Ashes tour berth. So too will his continued exhibition of leadership skills befitting the man chosen as Twenty20 captain.
In the bowling attack there has been a similar sense of asset management. Three of Australia's best-performing Test bowlers over the past year have been Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris and Nathan Lyon. Yet none have been considered for too much ODI duty in recent times, preferred as five-day weapons. It is a point of considerable contrast with England. Inverarity said earlier this year that he wanted to let Siddle loose in Tests. "He was lionhearted and wonderful [against India] and we look forward to him returning," he said. "But he's not in our short-term ODI plans."
Instead of showcasing Australia's first-choice attack, limited-overs games are now also being used to re-introduce players to the national squad after injury, as has happened with Mitchell Johnson. While his role in the three formats will become clearer with time, Johnson has reacquainted himself with the team and their support staff on this trip, which will help him to be more settled next time he is chosen, even if his bowling has looked some way short of the level required.
The overall standards of Australia's cricket are now assiduously monitored by the team performance manager, Pat Howard, in concert with the selectors and coaches, and he will not be happy with the displays put on against England over the past two weeks. At times the batting, bowling and fielding has reached similar depths to those explored during the 2010-11 Ashes series, much to the mirth of English spectators in London, Durham and Manchester.
Yet the difficulties encountered in England have been faced with future goals in mind, and a wider plan afoot. Returning the Test team to No. 1 in the world and regaining the Ashes sit well in front of the ODI rankings in the national team's priorities. The next World Cup lies three years away; the next Ashes series begins a year today. Australia's ODI team has been poor so far in 2012, but if the urn is regained in 2013 it will be considered a worthwhile sacrifice.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here