Australia embark on quest for defining victories
An Australian squad arriving for an Ashes tour of the UK is not like it used to be. Long gone are the days of landing en masse at Heathrow airport in late April to begin a month of county matches before the real thing started. Even a single warm-up game is no longer a reality.
This generation of players will convene over the next few days from a variety of locations with little more than a week to prepare for their first challenge of the trip which has nothing to do with Ben Stokes and Bazball as they look to secure the World Test Championship against India.
Those who have remained in Australia will meet those who have been playing county cricket and IPL - minus Cameron Green, for now, who remains with Mumbai Indians - for a few days of team bonding (which may include golf) before a short training camp in Beckenham. Australia's choice of how to prepare for these six Tests has been a topic of considerable debate, particularly in light of how they used a similar approach ahead of the India tour and were off the pace in the first Test, although it's worth noting how they did not have warm-up matches in Pakistan or Sri Lanka, either.
There is a view, and not only shared by Australia, that the value of the tour match has diminished so much as to make them redundant. Head coach Andrew McDonald believes self-contained intrasquad training, in a controlled environment, can be more beneficial. In their favour this time is that conditions in the UK will be less extreme than those that presented in India (notwithstanding the challenge the Dukes ball can provide) and for which a few days at North Sydney Oval was not like-for-like.
Some of the squad have been getting good-quality middle time against the red ball, notably Marnus Labuschagne and Steven Smith whose volume of runs in the five Tests against England will likely determine the course of the series. Then there is Michael Neser, not officially part of the squad, although that could change, whose standing has only risen over the last few weeks.
Those coming from the IPL have a few more question marks, although it's a transition players are used to these days. However, Virat Kohli's recent comment about having an eye on his Test technique even during the IPL was notable. Much of the focus will be on David Warner and whether he can find a likely final flourish to his Test career. It is difficult to read much into T20 form with what is ahead and, while McDonald was sounding a more upbeat note this week, there will be a better indication when he faces the new ball at The Oval.
It appears time may be too tight for Josh Hazlewood to make the WTC final after his small setback in the IPL. It had been said that the short spells of T20 cricket provided the ideal lead-in for Hazlewood. Again, judgement on that will have to wait. Being ready for Edgbaston now looks like the goal as he tries to emerge from a stop-start two years in Test cricket.
The fact the India Test comes first and so close to the beginning of the England series makes this a curious build-up to the Ashes. In a sense it almost goes on pause while the business of deciding the Test champion is confirmed, but in reality one will spill into the other especially when it comes to form and any potential injuries.
Overall, it feels as though Australia are in decent shape. It's a healthy sign when you can probably ink in 10 names of their XI for The Oval. Usman Khawaja and Travis Head, two crucial cogs at the top and in the middle, will need to get into gear swiftly after a short off-season, while Green, fresh off a thunderous maiden T20 century for Mumbai Indians, faces the adjustment from to Tests that challenged him in the last Australian season. Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon have been building up their workloads at home. Despite the questions around Hazlewood, they do not have the lengthy injury concerns of England's pace attack while India have also had to deal with some problems ahead of the final.
"Feels as though it's coming together well," McDonald said earlier this week. "If you'd asked me a month ago it feels disjointed, got people everywhere, but having that week [in Brisbane] when we connected with the players back in Australia, those guys are almost fully wound up and ready to go and that was by design. We have a shorter prep on the ground when we get over there."
This year - with the trio of top-level Test assignments laid out in front of them - was billed as era-defining. "We've spoken about being on a continual journey," McDonald said. "It will be up to others to define the team."
The opportunity in India had gone almost before they realised but they were strong enough to not fall apart. The next two months will go a long way to determining how this group, under Pat Cummins' leadership, will be remembered. If they can emerge as World Test Champions and win an Ashes in England for the first time since 2001 it would give the team a legacy. As Meatloaf sang, two out of three ain't bad.