Australia's hopes of reaching the inaugural Test World Championship final are set to hinge upon their ability to atone for the disgrace of this year's tour of South Africa, with the 2021 return trip to play the Proteas looming as the last series for Justin Langer's team before the two competing teams are decided.
Currently placed third in the ICC's Test rankings, the Australians face three away trips and three home series over the initial two-year cycle, starting with the 2019 Ashes tour of England and ending with the journey to South Africa. A visit to Bangladesh in early 2020 is the other away tour, while there are home series against Pakistan and New Zealand (2019-20) and India (2020-21). An inaugural Test against Afghanistan is also scheduled to take place at home, immediately prior to the India series.
Given their present ranking and the fact that all teams will start equal going into the start of the Championship cycle, Australia are likely to be in the mix for a place in the final entering the South Africa series, providing exactly the sort of context and third-party interest among neutral nations that the game's governing bodies and broadcasters have been seeking.
James Sutherland, the Cricket Australia chief executive, said the new Future Tours Program and the Test and ODI league structures now meant that the Australian summer would effectively be limited to five home Tests a season and somewhere between eight and 12 limited-overs matches. New Zealand (2019) and South Africa (2022) are set to return to Boxing Day Tests at the MCG for the first time since 1987 and 2006 respectively.
"It looks like five Test matches per summer is the staple diet of Test cricket. In terms of white-ball cricket, ODIs or T20I, there'll be eight to 12 white ball matches per summer at home," Sutherland said. "By natural extension, six of those matches will be ODIs as part of the one-day league, the remainder will be T20 matches.
"What we are trying to do by design with T20 internationals is to play more matches when the cycle allows and when the cycle has us leading into ICC T20 events so we're managing as best we can to increase the volume of T20 cricket in and around the World T20. Who we play against in Tests and one-day cricket there's little flexibility now. That will be worked through in this model - when we play and how much cricket we play or how long each series is is a matter for bilateral agreement between the two countries.
"Our preference is to play Tests at home in that traditional Test-cricket period which would encompass the Boxing Day and New Year's Test matches. In 2022-23 South Africa have agreed to play Test matches over that Christmas-New Year period in Australia."
The cap of Test matches at five a summer creates a conundrum around the allocation of Tests to venues beyond the traditional centres of Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth. In the forthcoming summer there are six scheduled, with Canberra's Manuka Oval making its five-day debut for a fixture against Sri Lanka in February. Hobart has also been a common recipient of the sixth Test of a summer, but may now find its opportunities reduced to white-ball formats.
Two bilateral Tests against Afghanistan - there is also an away match in the calendar preceding Tests against Pakistan in the UAE in early 2022 - mark a significant addition to Australia's footprint, being the first new nation they have played since Bangladesh in 2003. Sutherland explained that the 2020 match would effectively serve as a warm-up to the India series to follow, after Australia committed to a T20-heavy diet of matches around that year's global event. The increase in T20Is in the schedule is the most noticeable change from the previous 2015-2019 cycle.
"I would imagine the Afghanistan Test match would be a prelude to a warm-up if you like to that Test series against India, noting that that off-season we won't have had any Test cricket. There'll be a long break from Test cricket," Sutherland said. "If you think about that summer in 2020-21 we still have only five Test matches - four against India and one against Afghanistan. It's a big summer of cricket, and the World T20 and matches in that summer will be played at all venues. Hobart has got matches and Canberra has got matches as well - it will be shared around."