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Australia's Test drought poses possible Ashes problems

Tight home-Test schedule of six games in eight weeks lies ahead, with questions over red-ball preparation to boot

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
After an extended period of no red-ball cricket, it's back to business - a lot of it - for Australia in the 2021-22 home summer  •  Cricket Australia via Getty Images

After an extended period of no red-ball cricket, it's back to business - a lot of it - for Australia in the 2021-22 home summer  •  Cricket Australia via Getty Images

Australia are set to play six matches in fewer than eight weeks next summer, after a gap of 312 days since their last assignment against India in January, meaning an idling Test team will have to re-learn the fundamentals of the longest form of the game in an almighty hurry.
A one-off Test against Afghanistan at Bellerive Oval in November-December - Hobart's first Test match since November 2016 - will be followed by an Ashes series that will take in matches at the Gabba, Adelaide Oval (day-night), the MCG, the SCG and concluding at Perth Stadium in mid-January. It's the first time Sydney has not hosted the conclusion of an Ashes series since 1995, when the WACA Ground was the scene of the final match in early February.
The women's international calendar is also heavily stocked, with a series against India in September that ESPNcricinfo has reported will include a Test match, before the multi-format Ashes series against England that will take place after the conclusion of the WBBL. The men's and women's international fixtures have been devised with virtually no clashes between the two.
Covid-19 risk management, combined with a concentration by Cricket Australia on the home fixtures that bring in the vast majority of the governing body's revenue through broadcast-rights deals, has left the team led by Tim Paine and his deputy Pat Cummins to play just 10 Test matches over the course of more than two years, after going 345 days between Tests in 2020. None will take place away from home between September 2019 and (at least) February 2022 when a tour of Pakistan is very lightly etched into the calendar.
The home series defeat to India last summer, in spite of a raft of injuries and withdrawals from the touring team, was put down partly to the difficulties of adapting from cricket's short formats to its longest without much in the way of preparation in between. CA is looking at re-filling the position of batting coach that sat vacant last summer, in order to give the top six - which underperformed badly against India - greater one-on-one assistance this time around.
Equally, the selection chairman Trevor Hohns has spoken firmly of the need to return to a system of squad rotation for the fast bowlers in particular, after the gains made in the 2019 Ashes were abandoned over the past two home summers, much to Australia's cost against India.
"Particularly now, when most Test matches are programmed pretty closely on the heels of each other. We can't ask them to continually back up, day after day after day," Hohns said when naming the central contracts list in April. "It's only natural they are going to get tired. Sure, they might feel okay within themselves, but we've really got to monitor that a bit harder."
But the challenge will be all the greater with another year devoid of Test or first-class matches for many of the players, namely those who will also be involved in Australia's Twenty20 World Cup campaign in the second half of the year. Among established members of the Test team, only Paine, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood and perhaps Marnus Labuschagne can expect to play much Sheffield Shield cricket prior to the Afghanistan Test, which will be left to serve as a sort of Ashes preparation game for the rest.
"Certainly the home summer preparation and particularly the preparation for the home Ashes is front of mind for us so we're working through our planning for that at a team level but also at an individual level, and exploring a number of different options for the winter," the head of national teams Ben Oliver said this week. "Fortunately, a number of our players will have competitive cricket either internationally or domestically here and overseas.
"So we feel across the players that are likely to feature in that, in the home Test series, that they'll all be well prepared. Obviously we'll have a significant amount of Sheffield Shield cricket to assist in that preparation for those that don't have the opportunity to be part of a World Cup or other overseas competitions."
Paine said that the Hobart match would be critical to Australia's chances of putting together a cohesive and settled unit for the Ashes matches that would follow so closely afterwards.
"We haven't got any red-ball cricket in the lead-up to the Ashes except that Test match," Paine said in Hobart. "So from a preparation point of view it's going to be a really important Test match to set us up for the Ashes and Afghanistan have got some highly talented spinners in particular, which will create a real challenge. Any Test match we play, we want a full-strength side, and it's not always possible these days, but fingers crossed we can make it happen.
"Last summer wasn't our best in key moments, but I think over the last couple of years we've played some pretty consistent cricket. We're now talking about going from being a good team to a great team, and that Afghanistan Test and the Ashes this year is a really important part of that."
Other men's fixtures announced on Wednesday include three ODIs and a T20I against New Zealand in late January and early February, and five T20Is against Sri Lanka, who have stepped in for South Africa.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig