Australia's Ashes race heats up at camp Pat Howard built

Twenty-five hopefuls are set to play a trial match in Southampton, with coach Langer and selector Hohns in attendance. Which 16 will make it? Or will it be 17?

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
Australia coach Justin Langer has been reassured that the Ashes squad can include a 17th member if required, as the likes of Matthew Wade, Kurtis Patterson, Joe Burns, Marnus Labuschagne, Jackson Bird and Peter Siddle prepare to duel for the last few remaining spots in the touring party at Southampton this week.
About 50 players and Cricket Australia staff are all on site at the Rose Bowl in Hampshire for a trial match between teams coached by high-performance coach Brad Haddin and batting coach Graeme Hick, with Langer and the selection chairman Trevor Hohns to oversee the contest and make their final deliberations. The acting head of team performance Belinda Clark is also here, while the new head of national teams Ben Oliver - one of two roles Clark recommended to oversee the sprawling high-performance area - is also expected to be present.
This camp was the vision of the oft-criticised former head of team performance Pat Howard, who looked for lateral solutions to tour preparations after a series of underwhelming results from 2014 to 2016, including the 2015 Ashes series. Among his other gambits had been an extended camp at the ICC academy in Dubai ahead of the 2017 tour of India, a plan that reaped a highly competitive showing from the team then led by Steven Smith.
Two years on, with Langer and Tim Paine in charge, the huge assembly in Hampshire was devised to provide sharper warm-up than the sorts of underwhelming county fixtures wheeled out by the ECB four years ago.
"Great respect to Pat Howard before us, we talked about it and they've made it happen," Langer said. "It was a good vision back then but time will tell. I can't think of a better preparation. We've got great facilities, we've got 25 of the best cricketers in Australia here, they're going to go head to head, they'll play tough cricket.
"We just had a World Cup so a lot of them, there's six or seven who are battle-hardened already, we've had some Australia A cricket, hopefully this is as good a preparation as we can get."
In looking over the 25 players present, all of whom are set to play apart from Usman Khawaja as he recovers gradually from a hamstring strain, Langer stated that Clark had informed him the squad would have the flexibility required should the selectors want a 17th player, most likely Alex Carey as the back-up gloveman to Paine. Another factor that will come into play is the fact that Cameron Bancroft (Durham) and Labuschagne (Glamorgan) have county deals that will keep them on hand in England regardless of selection, an avenue not available to Patterson or Wade.
"I think there is a couple of bowling positions up for grabs, probably a couple of batting positions," Langer said. "There will be a lot of discussion about whether we have an extra spinner, a lot of discussion about whether we have an extra wicketkeeper. It won't necessarily be a straight shootout but there will certainly be good opportunities for guys. I've got no doubt we'll have the flexibility we need. I had a good discussion with Belinda this morning. We'll have the flexibility required.
"Ultimately you've got to pick the best Ashes squad. I know that every player wants to be in the Ashes squad. The softer landing, I guess, and the fortunate landing is they've got a county deal then that's great. It's great for them, they're playing cricket in England, and it also gives us the advantage if something does happen at least they're in the country.
"This is unprecedented, to have 25 players here plus a few more who aren't in this game - Ashton Agar, Glenn Maxwell, there's a lot of good players who are in the country. It'll be the same when we cut it from 25 to 16 or 17 then we'll still have some of the guys here I assume. That's a really positive thing for us."
Langer also flagged that Mitchell Marsh and Labuschagne were essentially competing for one spot as an allrounder, the former offering seam and swing, the latter bouncy wristspin as well as a prolific recent run for Glamorgan. He admitted, too, that the process of openly and respectfully telling players who's in and who's out over the course of the week would be challenging.
"We're still searching for the best way," Langer said. "At the back end of the game, it's really important we talk to guys face to face and we talk to guys individually. It's about respect and it's about good communication. We can't just talk about communication and not actually put it into practice. There are going to be some disappointed guys, there are going to be some really jubilant guys, some being on their first tour and others their first Ashes Test series. We're just working out the best way to do that but we'll speak to everyone face to face.
"There are two objectives of this game. One is that we're battle-hardened and played intense competition before the first Test. We need that, there's no point going in just playing some Mickey Mouse cricket, so they'll go in battle hardened, all of them. And two, it's about opportunity. There's some places up for grabs, and we'll see our guys react to the pressure of playing for these sports and playing against the best domestic competition they can be up against. So that's what the objective of this game's about."
Useful also for Langer is the fact that Paine and Hick have been able to concentrate solely on the Ashes for the past five months, while Langer and others were preoccupied with a World Cup campaign that ultimately fell two wins short of claiming the trophy at Lord's. The mental and emotional toll of the cup has been clear for numerous members of the squad, with the focus and planning of those leaders not involved now extremely valuable in charting a path to beating England.
"We did it not only with Painey but Graeme Hick was here with Australia A and he did some great stuff leading up to the Ashes with some of the data we're looking for, some of the match-ups we're looking for, they all did a good job," Langer said. "We had a great team back in Brisbane who have helped us feel like we're really ready for this Ashes campaign.
"So to have those guys focused solely on red-ball cricket and Ashes cricket ... my gut feeling is that'll be the way forward for us. There's so much cricket now, there's T20 World Cups coming up, a new cycle of World Cup in one-day cricket, we've got the Ashes, we've got Test cricket we're trying to get better in. I think that'll be the way forward, but Tim Paine, Graeme Hick and these guys have done a good job getting us ready for the series."
As for England, Langer accepted some parallels with the surge in momentum and support for the hosts that occurred in 2005 given the white-knuckle triumph of the white-ball side in the World Cup final after a long and highly orchestrated campaign. However he also noted that England's momentum has not really been gleaned from Test cricket, having lost 2-1 in the West Indies at the start of the year.
"The thing that worried me most in 2005 was the momentum England had built up because they'd been playing great cricket and they'd been playing great Test-match cricket," Langer said. "And that made me nervous about the World Cup, that's why I kept saying England are favourites for the World Cup, because their build-up and their winning momentum was better than anyone's.
"In Test cricket it might be a bit different, they'll have a few different players in there. Whether you go back in past series, we might've been beating England but you never question the passion of the Barmy Army or English cricket. I'm sure they'll be very excited about the World Cup, they might take a bit of momentum, but we've got to be ready for that. We had a good World Cup as well, so we'll take some confidence out of the World Cup, besides that last game obviously, but whether it affects the Ashes, time will tell."
Possible Ashes squad: Tim Paine (capt), David Warner, Marcus Harris, Usman Khawaja, Steven Smith, Travis Head, Kurtis Patterson, Matthew Wade, Mitchell Marsh, Alex Carey, James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Peter Siddle, Nathan Lyon, Jon Holland

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig