Blaming rotation is missing the point
As each wicket fell at the Gabba, as Australia edged closer to what nearly became their lowest-ever ODI total, the critics of the team's rotation policy found full voice. Commentators wondered if the side had been destabilised by all the changes, a question Channel 9's Mark Nicholas asked Michael Clarke after the loss. Twitter lit up with suggestions that after Lance Armstrong's display of faux contrition, John Inverarity would be the next to grace Oprah's couch and admit fault.
It was a pithy line but one that missed the point. And the point was that Australia's batsmen were undone by the most wonderful display of swing bowling from Nuwan Kulasekara and, later, Lasith Malinga. The three men returning from a break, Clarke, David Warner and Matthew Wade, were beaten by the quality bowling. But so were George Bailey, David Hussey and Phillip Hughes, all of whom had played both the first two matches, in Melbourne and Adelaide.
Certainly Australia's batsmen could have been more circumspect, but it's hard to think of many batsmen around the world who would have handled Kulasekara with ease on a day like this. He was hooping the ball so far from outside off to the stumps, it wouldn't have been surprising to find an industrial fan positioned at short cover. James Anderson will struggle to move the ball that much during the Ashes this year, even in the helpful English conditions.
That is not to say that Australia's batsmen will counter quality swing bowlers comfortably in their Test challenges. Time and again in the past few years the moving ball has been their undoing, as it was in their 47 all-out in Cape Town 14 months ago, and their 88 on the first day against Pakistan at Headingley in 2010. But with the exception of Hughes, who was squared up and caught at slip, few of the batsmen at the Gabba played the kind of strokes they would have in a Test.
And Test cricket is where Australia will be judged in 2013. Not in a five-match one-day international series against Sri Lanka that will be forgotten within a month. Without wishing to disrespect Sri Lanka, one look at Australia's hectic cricketing calendar makes it clear that this series and the upcoming one-dayers against West Indies are the best times to rest key men this year. And as much as some former players resent the idea, today's international cricketers need the occasional break.
Take Warner, for example. Until he was rested for the first two matches of this ODI series, he had not missed a single game for Australia, in any format, since his Test debut in the first week of December 2011. For the sake of neatness, let's consider his workload in the 2012 calendar year alone. He played 49 of a possible 49 games for Australia in that time, along with IPL and Champions League commitments.
Last January, Warner played Tests in Sydney, Perth and Adelaide. Then he had T20s and one-dayers in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane, Hobart, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide. Eight days after the last of those games, he was in St Vincent in the Caribbean, about as far from Adelaide as is possible. He played limited-overs games in St Vincent, St Lucia and Barbados, and then Tests in Barbados, Trinidad and Dominica.
Less than two weeks later, he was in India for the IPL, playing in Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai and Dharmasala. After the IPL he had the luxury of a fortnight at home before flying to England to play a warm-up game in Leicester, an ODI across the Irish Sea in Belfast, then back to England for a game in Chelmsford, and one-dayers in London, Durham and Manchester. Another short spell at home followed.
After that he had games against Afghanistan and Pakistan in Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah (again) and Dubai, then it was straight to Sri Lanka for the World Twenty20. His six games there were all in Colombo. It was about the longest he spent in any one city for the whole year.
Then there was the Champions League in South Africa, which he was contractually obliged to play in, and which took him to Centurion, Durban, Cape Town, back to Centurion and back to Durban again. One week later he was back in Australia to play a Sheffield Shield game in Brisbane before Test matches in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney.
If that was exhausting to read, imagine what it was like to live through. At a rough estimate, Warner would have boarded a plane at least 70 times during the year. There are commercial airline pilots who will have flown less than he did during 2012. But that's the job, you say? That's why he gets the big dollars. True. But money doesn't make him any less susceptible to fatigue.
Inverarity and his selection panel saw an opportunity to give Warner a rest over the past week, during what, frankly, is one of the less important battles of the year, and they gave it to him. Likewise Michael Clarke, who in any case had carried a hamstring niggle through the past three Tests and must surely have benefited from such a break. Likewise Matthew Wade, who in 2012 played 46 of a possible 49 games for Australia.
It is worth noting how close Warner and Wade were to the record number of international matches ever played by an Australian in a calendar year. That figure is 51, set by Michael Hussey in 2009. In the pre-T20 era, the only men at such a level were Shane Warne and Mark Waugh, who each played 50 games in 1999, a year that featured a World Cup, Test tours of West Indies, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, and the usual home summer ODI tri-series.
But bear in mind that in the following year, 2000, Australia's schedule was pruned significantly and they played only 31 games and had four months off in the winter. There is no such luxury for Warner and Wade in 2013. If Australia reach the final of the Champions Trophy in England in the middle of the year, the team will play at least 47 international matches in the calendar year 2013, plus individual commitments such as the IPL and Champions League. The reality of cricket in this era is that those tournaments must be factored in.
Between the ongoing one-dayers, a Test tour of India, the IPL, the Champions Trophy, the Ashes, ODIs in England, ODIs in India, and another Ashes series at home, the gaps on the calendar this year are even harder to identify than they were in 2012.
Did Australia lose one-day momentum by resting Warner, Clarke and Wade? Perhaps. But that is vastly preferable to such men being mentally and physically exhausted when they set off on next month's four-Test tour of India. It should be noted they will need to fly to India within a week of the end of the limited-overs series against West Indies.
When the cricket calendar is that packed, players could be forgiven for forgetting their addresses. Giving them a week at home at this time of year is not much to ask.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here