The Ryobi Cup will be played exclusively in Sydney as a standalone tournament at the start of Australia's domestic summer this season, leaving space for only three rounds of Sheffield Shield cricket before the first Ashes Test. Three weeks from the start of the state competition, Cricket Australia has released its full domestic fixture for 2013-14, with clearly defined periods for all three formats, which will not overlap.
The Sheffield Shield will be played in two blocks, with six rounds of matches before Christmas and the remaining four rounds and the final to take place after the end of the Big Bash League. Cricket Australia has stressed that all Test players will have at least two and in many cases three Sheffield Shield matches to acclimatise to the longer format before the first Ashes Test at the Gabba in November.
The presence of a dedicated one-day period means the Shield will not begin until October 30, and that Australia's ODI players touring India through October and early November will miss only one round of four-day cricket. However, it also means that, depending on the timing of the announcement of Australia's squad for the first Test, some players will have only one or two Shield games to press their cases.
In the lead-up to the disastrous 2010-11 home Ashes, the state teams played four Shield matches before the first Test but Australia's main preparation problem was a Test and one-day tour of India in October that got the players used to the wrong conditions. That was followed by an ODI series at home against Sri Lanka while England were warming up against the red ball.
This summer, England will again play three warm-up matches before the first Test and the presence of the Ryobi Cup deep into late October means that an opportunity for the Australians to prepare with extra rounds of Shield cricket has been missed. Cricket Australia's chief executive James Sutherland has at least indicated that this year most Test players will remain in Australia rather than touring India.
"From 30 October until mid-December there will an intensive block of Sheffield Shield cricket," he said. "All Test players will have a minimum of two and a maximum of three Shield matches to prepare for the first Ashes Test. Most Test players will already be in Australia but any Test players returning from the India ODI series will be available for rounds two and three before they assemble for the Ashes.
"While it remains an important proving ground, the Shield isn't the only measure used by selectors to assess Test aspirants. The Australia A program has been upgraded over the last two years to become an important step for those players seeking Australian selection, whether at Test or one-day international level."
The Ryobi Cup will be used as a season-launching competition that will run from September 29 to October 27. Teams will play six matches each before the final and notably every game will be held in Sydney, with Bankstown Oval, North Sydney Oval, Hurstville, Drummoyne and Blacktown to be the venues rather than the SCG. The majority of matches will be broadcast live on free-to-air television through the Nine Network HD channel Gem.
"We believe having a more clearly defined and blocked domestic schedule will give players the best chance to maximise their performance in each form of the game without the chopping and changing of previous years," Sutherland said. "Playing the Ryobi One-Day Cup in a tournament format in October will provide a strong start to the cricket season.
"While this move is a more expensive option for CA, our team performance unit believes replicating a tournament style competition for one-day cricket is the best way of preparing our one-day cricketers for one-day internationals and the World Cup in early 2015."
The Shield will run from October 30 to December 11, meaning players from outside the Test team will have plenty of red-ball cricket until the third Test, before the BBL begins on December 20. The BBL has also been trimmed by eight days at the back end after Cricket Australia earlier announced that the tournament would run for 58 days and finish with a final on February 15.
That has now been revised with the semi-finals and decider to be played over a four-day period and the tournament to be complete by February 7. The earlier finish means the Shield can restart by February 12, although that is still not soon enough to prepare players for the Test tour of South Africa in February.
"Once the format and schedule of the Ryobi One-Day Cup and Bupa Sheffield Shield became clear, we reviewed the KFC Big Bash League schedule, in consultation and with the support of our host broadcaster Network Ten, and have tightened the finals period into one week which will see the competition continue its momentum following the round matches and also provide a fitting climax to the competition," Sutherland said. "This also means it will be played immediately after our international T20 season.
"The second half of the Shield season will be played concurrently with the South Africa Test Series. This means that if replacement players are required for the Tests, those players will be playing red-ball cricket in Australia at the same time."
However, during round nine of the Shield it will pink-ball cricket, with day-night first-class matches to be trialled, as Cricket Australia had already announced. The three day-night matches will be Victoria hosting Tasmania at the MCG, South Australia playing New South Wales at Adelaide Oval and Queensland hosting Western Australia at the Gabba.
"We've had ambitions to play day-night Test cricket for some time and although there have been some false starts, we are determined to make day-night Test cricket a reality," Sutherland said.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here