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Russell Jackson

Unpredictable roads ahead for Australia

Summer is a time when the country kids itself about its cricket. It's likely to be different this season

Russell Jackson
Russell Jackson
Steven Smith and Michael Clarke at the presentation, England v Australia, 5th Investec Ashes Test, The Oval, 4th day, August 23, 2015

Steven Smith inherits a side low on experience compared to Michael Clarke's when he took over the Test captaincy  •  Getty Images

In cricket, there's no place like home. Australia's isolation from the rest of the world and its distinctive cricketing environment - fast and bouncy wickets, dry heat and vocal crowds - are of course an essential ingredient in the country's lofty, long-standing status in the international pecking order.
In some eras this has merely been an extension of the side's general buoyancy and their dominance in all corners of the globe, but at other times - the last decade particularly - these environmental factors have tended to obscure the harsh truths about the country's post-golden era sides. Summer in Australia is often a time in which the nation just kids itself for months on end.
Recent examples of this cultural phenomenon include, but are not limited to, 2009-10, when a pair of home Test series against West Indies and Pakistan yielded 2-0 and 3-0 wins that didn't remotely hint at the annihilations that were to come in an away series in India and the home Ashes that followed.
To a lesser extent, 2012-13 had some of those hallmarks too; the home side dour and even a little unlucky in a 0-1 series loss against world-beating South Africa before they swept Sri Lanka aside 3-0, bounding down the straight with an ease that didn't foreshadow disastrous away campaigns against India and England, in which Australia lost a cumulative 7-0 in nine Tests. But by then the sun had disappeared and Australians could bury themselves in their various football codes.
Right now Steven Smith's side should be playing two Tests in Bangladesh, of course, and among the many disappointments in that tour not going ahead is the fact that such an odd-looking, era-commencing Australian squad might have been pressed reasonably hard by the home side, the latter's dismal Test record notwithstanding. We might also have learned a thing or two about what sort of shape this Australian side will take in the post-Clarke era. For now, it's still a little hard to say.
As it is, the untried and unproven batsmen who would have played in Bangladesh have only the Matador Cup one-dayers and a "red-ball camp" to prepare for a New Zealand side that could quite possibly beat them in both home and away Test series either side of West Indies' three-Test visit later in the Australian summer. It's probably best to pre-emptively isolate the West Indies series as an outlier, and not unkind to suggest that Channel Nine have highlights tapes of the 1992-93 series on hand for the potential spare days.
That aside, Australia's new-generation Test side has no obvious opportunities to kid itself in the next 18 months. Wedged in the gaps created for countless short-form engagements, they follow the three-Test away series in New Zealand with the same number in Sri Lanka (no cinch), then home series against South Africa (formidable) and Pakistan (too much a mystery to predict this far out), before a potentially humbling four-Test assignment in India.
For fans the upshots are obvious. With Ashes fatigue at new heights there's no sign of England, and over-familiar India are still 16 months away, allowing fresher competitive dynamics to develop and sheer novelty to have its day. New Zealand always prime themselves for Trans-Tasman clashes and aside from boasting a potent line-up themselves, they're also a Rumsfeldian known unknown - the traditional rivals against whom most members of this Australian side have never actually played much international cricket, save for a pair of notably lopsided World Cup encounters. That long-standing negative is, for the next six months, a significant boon.
Of course, a host of spots in this Australian side are up for grabs and the likes of Cameron Bancroft and Usman Khawaja know that they could put a mortgage on a pair of them for the best part of a decade, but the greatest test of all will be that faced by Smith, for whom runs will probably become all the more important if and when the results don't come quite as easy. Combining the schedule and personnel at his disposal, his task is tougher than that faced by any Australian captain since Allan Border. Even Clarke had a few more known knowns to count on.
By nature, captaincy handovers rarely occur in such a way as to allow the recipient to coast along but if that's nothing particularly new, much else of Australia's next year in Test cricket will be and enticingly so. It's been a while since you could say that.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sport in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian Australia and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko