India's tour of Australia may begin with the limited-overs leg, followed by the four-Test series. ESPNcricinfo has learned that is one of the options on the discussion table between Cricket Australia and BCCI, but no final decision has been taken yet by both boards.
The one big advantage of playing half-a-dozen white-ball matches - T20Is and ODIs - at the front end of the tour will mean no games are lost from the original schedule, after it was expected that the T20Is would be shifted to 2022 alongside the World Cup in the same format.
India could fly in an enlarged squad, comprising both Test specialists and limited-overs players at the same time, and deal with the mandatory quarantine norms better too.
As per the tentative schedule released by Cricket Australia in May, India's tour of Australia would have started in October with the three-match T20I series before the T20 World Cup, which has now been pushed back to 2022.
The first Test of the series was scheduled to be played in Brisbane from December 3, followed by a day-night Test in Adelaide (starting December 11), with the traditional Boxing Day Test in Melbourne (from December 26) and the New Year's Test in Sydney (from January 3, 2021).
That schedule is likely to change due to a combination of factors, one of which is the recent spike in Covid-19 cases in Melbourne, which forced the city into a lockdown that is due to last until mid-September. Consequently, matches are likely to be played at reduced venues to ensure there is minimal movement and players are safe within the bubble. A Test series spaced across four cities and as many states is increasingly unlikely.
The other significant factor is the lack of any free time. Immediately after the ICC deferred the 2020 T20 World Cup to next year, the BCCI announced the IPL in the UAE, with the tournament to be played between September 19 and November 10.
That means players will only be able to start training from around November 26 if they are to land in Australia on November 12. Although teams travelling to England this summer, which also includes Australia's limited-overs squad, have been able to train during quarantine, that has only been possible due to the ECB-assigned venues having on-site accommodation.
Currently, Adelaide is the only venue with an on-site hotel facility, which is meant to open in September. That said, CA, the WACA and the West Australian government are working on scenarios for accommodating players near either the WACA Ground or Perth Stadium.
While the option of starting the tour with four Tests has not been struck off yet, as Nick Hockley, CA's acting chief executive said recently, there remains one clear challenge: will there be enough time for India to play practice matches? As per the original schedule, Adelaide is set to host the second Test of the series, which was also slated to be the first pink-ball Test between the two teams.
India's captain Virat Kohli had insisted that they would want to play a practice match under lights to prepare for the day-night Test. "I think it depends when the Test happens. If it's the first Test, then obviously before the first game you play [a practice match]," Kohli had said last November after India's maiden day-night Test, which they won against Bangladesh. "One of them can be a normal red-ball practice game, and one before the Test could be a pink-ball practice game. But if it's the second or third Test, I would ideally like more break between the two Tests. And have a practice game before the pink-ball Test, obviously under lights. So it can't be that before the tour you play a pink-ball practice game and then the [pink-ball] Test is actually the third."
Mental health a 'key consideration' for CA
Another key challenge for CA is the one-off Test against Afghanistan, which was pencilled in as a day-night fixture between November 21-25 in Perth. It is understood that CA communicated to Afghanistan Cricket Board (ACB) recently stating that Test could start from November 24. As it stands, that Test remains on paper, and if it goes ahead it will leave only four days before the first Test of the India tour scheduled at the Gabba.
That is where the option of starting the India tour with limited-overs cricket appears viable. With most of the players set to come from the IPL, they would not need extra training for white-ball cricket. Also, all six matches can be played at just one venue, thus minimising the health risk.
If the T20I and ODI series are wrapped up by December 10, it leaves India with the option of playing one intra-squad practice match before the first Test, which could start on December 18. With the standard three-day gap between matches, the Test series could then be wrapped up by January 15, allowing India to be back home to prepare for the home series against England, which is currently scheduled to begin in late January.
Obviously, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, both boards acknowledge that the schedule must remain a set of moving parts. Ben Oliver, CA's head of national teams, has stated there remain "challenges" about finalising the itinerary, but he remains "optimistic" about the Australia fulfilling the international schedule this summer.
"We are really excited about the home Test summer, both the first Test against Afghanistan and the four scheduled against India," Oliver said on Friday. "We are doing everything we can to get those matches played, to be honest it's not without its challenges, there is some complexity in the schedule and our ability to move around the country but we have great support and commitment from our various partners including Afghanistan and India.
"We are working through that now and everyone is committed to getting as much cricket played as possible. In the same way as this tour of England it's with health and safety at the forefront of our thinking and the non-negotiable of our commitment to public health. We remain optimistic about delivering the full Test summer."
With additional reporting from Daniel Brettig
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo