Before the Ashes start, let’s remember where we left Australian men’s Test cricket

As nu metal songbirds Staind once crooned, it’s been a while.

If you can’t really remember the state of men’s Test cricket in Australia, you’re not out of line.

Since January 6, 2020 (a simpler time before we knew of the impending pandemic doom approaching), the team has played exactly four Test matches; all of them against India last summer.

But suddenly, we have an Ashes series on our shores and to say the team is short on long-form cricket practice would be an understatement.

So, where were we and where are we with the biggest series in cricket just a week away?

What happened last summer?

India's Rishabh Pant raises his arm as he runs while celebrating the winning runs against Australia.
India was unrecognisable by the end of the series, but was still too much for Australia.(AP: Tertius Pickard)

After rolling India for just 36 while winning the first Test, things only went downhill for the Aussie Test side.

India was without *deep breath* Virat Kohli, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Ravi Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Jasprit Bumrah and Umesh Yadav for all or some of the series.

They called up five debutants during the four Tests and were virtually unrecognisable by the end of the summer, but still managed to complete a famous 2-1 victory, breaching the Gabbattoir for the first time to seal the series.

Former England captain Michael Vaughan later joked on Fox Cricket: “There’s no shame in losing to India’s Third XI.”

Some of the highlights included:

  • Australia started the summer with Matthew Wade and Joe Burns as their opening pair, shifted to David Warner and Will Pucovski, then Warner and Marcus Harris. Pucovski top-scored among openers with 62 on debut.
  • Kohli went home after the first Test, with Ajinkya Rahane stepping in as captain so well that it fuelled speculation that King Kohli could be better as a specialist batter.
  • Steve Smith couldn’t get out of single digits in the first four innings so he belted 131 and 81 in the third Test, seemingly out of spite.
  • Indian players were racially abused from the stands, with TV cameras and SCG security identifying the wrong people.
  • After reducing India to 6-186 in their first innings of the last Test, first-gamers Washington Sundar and Shardul Thakur batted India out of trouble, getting them within spitting distance of Australia’s score, before Rishabh Pant won them the series with 89 not out in the 329-run chase.
  • Nathan Lyon took just nine wickets in four Tests, while player of the series Pat Cummins took 21.
  • Marnus Labuschagne top-scored for the series with 426 runs at 53.25 and was one of just three players (with Smith and Rahane) to score centuries — all with one each.
Australian fielder Marnus Labuschagne uses his sleeve to shine a cricket ball during a Test at the Gabba.
Marnus Labuschagne was one of few Australian cricketers who would have been happy with their series.(AP: Tertius Pickard)

What’s happened since then?

Basically anything except Test cricket.

After the last Test ended on January 19, Australia’s men had a year almost entirely dedicated to Twenty20 cricket in the lead-up to the World Cup, which started awkwardly but culminated in glory.

Coming straight out of the Tests against India, they jumped across the ditch to get beaten 3-2 by New Zealand.

They then travelled to the Caribbean for a 4-1 demolition by the West Indies in July, saved some face by winning two of three ODIs against them, then sent a squad unstudded by stars to Bangladesh to get wrecked 4-1 again over seven days. Four wins in 13 games across two formats against two teams in the space of one month.

Oh, and during all of that, Justin Langer’s position as coach was questioned and criticised from just about every angle.

All that led into a T20 World Cup campaign that weathered an English shellacking, before ripening perfectly to end with an unexpected maiden men’s T20 world title.

Shortly after that surprising high, Australia lost its Test captain, and got a new one.

Why has there been such a Test drought?

Australia wicketkeeper Tim Paine lies on the grass during a Test cricket match. His sunglasses are slightly askew.
Former Test skipper Tim Paine doesn’t play the shorter forms, so he’ll be resting up.(Getty: Ryan Pierse)

Getting international athletes to come to Australia with such strict quarantine requirements for the past two years hasn’t been easy.

So, bringing touring sides out was a challenge, but the long stretches without Test cricket came in Australia’s winter and autumn anyway. This is an issue of Aussies not touring.

It seems the focus on the T20 World Cup has meant scheduling long-form cricket hasn’t been a priority.

A Test tour of Bangladesh that was supposed to take place in June last year was canned, Cricket Australia (CA) said, due to COVID. Then in February, CA controversially binned a slated series in South Africa due to a second wave in the country, infuriating Cricket South Africa in the process.

And the one-off Test against Afghanistan that was slated to start on November 27 is on hold as we wait for the Taliban to clean up their human rights record. Should be any day now.

Oh, and if you think playing Test cricket was impossible during that stretch, this summer’s foe, England, played 20 games in the same 23-month span in which Australia played four.

Not as many openings as you might think heading into the Ashes

Australia bowler Mitchell Starc shrugs on the pitch during a Test against India.
Could the Cummins-Starc-Hazlewood-Lyon bowling line-up be changed during the summer?(Getty: Albert Perez/Cricket Australia)

Which all brings us to now.

With so little red-ball cricket played of late, it’s hardly surprising that we might be a bit confused about what’s going on, because there simply haven’t been enough games to move the needle much in the past 11 months.

The last male Test XI was: David Warner, Marcus Harris, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Matthew Wade, Cameron Green, Tim Paine, Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon and Josh Hazlewood.

Wade was the only member of that team to miss out on a spot in the 15-man squad for the Ashes, with Usman Khawaja, Travis Head, Jhye Richardson, Michael Neser and Mitch Swepson added on. Then Tim Paine stood down, leaving an opening for Australia A squad members Alex Carey and Josh Inglis.

Warner, despite only having three centuries from his past 29 Test innings, is in. As are Labuschagne, Smith, Cummins, Lyon and Hazlewood.

Australia batsman David Warner watches over his shoulder as he is caught out by India's Cheteshwar Pujara at the SCG.
David Warner has just three big scores since January 2018.(AP: Rick Rycroft)

Starc is also probably on that list at least for the first Test, but he had a rough go the last time he pulled on whites, taking just three wickets across the final two Tests against India. Lyon only took nine in the series, but Aussie spin options are thin on the ground, while Starc has Neser, Richardson and Sean Abbott sniffing around him for the third seamer spot.

Speaking of not taking a lot of wickets, Green is a lock after impressing with the bat in his first Test series and backing it up with scores of 106, 61 and 53 this Shield season, but the wait continues for his first Test pole, and the wickets at domestic level aren’t exactly coming in bunches either.

Opener, middle-order and wicketkeeper spot up for grabs

That leaves spots two, five and seven in the line-up open.

Travis Head hends the ball away while batting at the MCG.
Travis Head was unlucky to be dropped to make way for an injured Warner during the series against India.(AP: Andy Brownbill)

With Pucovski’s return from concussion delayed by troubling ongoing symptoms, Harris and evergreen Usman Khawaja were the obvious candidates for the opening spot alongside Warner, but it seems the incumbent Harris has it sewn up.

Khawaja is second in run-scoring this Shield season with two tons to Harris’s one, but the Victorian’s first-class centuries in the English summer and the fact he’s five years younger than Khawaja, who was dropped during the 2019 Ashes, probably gave him the inside track.

The Queenslander’s solid Test average of 40.66 jumps up to 96.80 in his seven innings as a Test opener, compared to Harris’s 23.77 in 19 Test innings without reaching three figures, but Khawaja is in a middle-order fight with Travis Head.

Head has scores of 163, 101 and 55 in the Sheffield Shield this season, as well as a blistering 230 off 127 in the domestic one-day tournament. He also has two Test tons and seven half-centuries in 31 Test innings, with an average just under 40.

A bit like Khawaja during the 2019 Ashes, Head was unlucky to be dropped last summer, with Wade keeping his spot in the XI after doing selectors a favour by standing in for an injured Warner to start the series.

Meanwhile, Carey has been the heir apparent to Paine for a few years, seemingly kept out of the Test team solely by the big “C” next to Paine’s name. Eighteen months ago his ascendancy wouldn’t have even been a question, but selectors have become enamoured with Inglis recently.

A practice game starting today will give some indication of where selectors are leaning, but we’ll find out in a week exactly what their plan is and over the next few months discover if four Tests in two years was too few.

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