Australia 'rusty', but ready - Lehmann
Australia's coach Darren Lehmann has conceded his men will be rusty when they tour Zimbabwe this month but he said their long winter's break was needed after an exhausting 12 months of cricket. The Australians depart on Wednesday for their first international matches in nearly five months, and the one-day tri-series begins a hectic period for the team.
The series against Zimbabwe and South Africa will be followed in the next 12 months by Tests and limited-overs games against Pakistan in the UAE, a one-day series at home against South Africa, home Tests against India, a home one-day tri-series, the World Cup, a Test tour of the West Indies, and an Ashes tour of England. And after the Ashes, the schedule barely lets up.
It is not dissimilar to the heavy schedule Lehmann's men had over the previous 18 months, when they hosted Tests against South Africa and Sri Lanka, went to India for four Tests, played 10 consecutive Ashes matches and toured South Africa for three more Tests, with plenty of short-form matches thrown in. That is why the rare winter break was so necessary.
"Professionally, everyone was tired - coaches were tired, players were very tired, and they did an amazing amount of work in 12 months," Lehmann told reporters in Brisbane on Monday. "So to get a break before we go on the road for two years was pretty important.
"Now the [challenge] is getting us back up to the skill level that we need to compete at international cricket. We've got Zimbabwe and South Africa and then we've obviously got a big test in the UAE. I think everyone is jumping out, they just want to play.
"We're going to be a bit rusty with the skills, but that's okay. We're gonna make mistakes, but that's okay. What we need to do is build and build and build to become a better Test side, a better one-day side, a better Twenty20 side."
One man who is unquestionably jumping out of his skin to play is Phillip Hughes, who on Saturday was named as a late inclusion for the Zimbabwe tour after Shane Watson was ruled out due to an ankle injury. Hughes enters the series in impeccable form, having scored double-centuries in both one-day and four-day cricket for Australia A over the past few weeks.
The absence of Watson and also of David Warner, who will remain at home to prepare for the birth of his first child, could provide Hughes with a chance to audition ahead of the World Cup. However, Aaron Finch may yet find himself opening with Brad Haddin rather than Hughes, and Lehmann said there were no guarantees Hughes would play despite the lack of specialist batsmen in the squad.
"He's in the squad and if he gets a chance I'm sure he'll take it," Lehmann said. "We have to find the right balance, whoever that is, whether that's Phillip in or not in for the first game, we have to sum up the conditions. We have to make sure we get away to a good start, so we'll be at full-strength early and then see what happens with the tournament from there, how the wickets play and whether it spins or doesn't."
Australia have plenty of pace bowling options including Ben Cutting and Kane Richardson, along with the left-armers Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc and James Faulkner, but there was no place in the 14-man squad for Australia's highest-ranked ODI bowler, Clint McKay. Lehmann said McKay's performances over the past year had led to him being dropped.
"In the last 12 months he hasn't delivered with the new ball for us," Lehmann said, "and his speed isn't up to scratch for us and that's the message we've sent to him."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale