After six months in COVID-induced hibernation, Australia’s cricketers will don the green and gold for the first time in six months in Saturday morning’s first T20 against England (3am AEST) at the Rose Bowl.
Six games — three T20s and three ODIs — will be crammed into just 13 days in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it white-ball tour.
The upheaval caused by the pandemic means the T20 element of the tour in particular won’t carry the same weight as originally touted.
At the start of 2020, the series was earmarked as an important marker leading into Australia’s first World Cup on home soil.
Despite an impressive run that saw them take the world number one ranking, questions hung over Justin Langer’s side in the shortest format.
Was Australia’s emergence as a T20 heavyweight real? Did they really deserve to be favourites for the World Cup? Which players would nail down a spot in the best XI?
The tour was supposed to answer those questions.
Now, however, that contextual importance is gone. The next World Cup, in India, is over 12 months away and Australia will have to wait a full two years to host theirs.
But the upcoming series has taken on a different sort of significance.
After the longest layoff in living memory, Australia’s return to the field might represent a nice distraction and comfort for fans after what’s been a tough year.
For some, cricket is a deep, sometimes unexplainable passion. And without seeking to overstate its value, Australia’s return to the screen will be welcome for fans, particularly those under lockdown in Victoria.
The series is also an important distraction from the off-field turmoil currently taking place in Australian cricket.
It’s been a horrid winter for Cricket Australia, who have managed to anger almost every key stakeholder in the game: its staff, players, state-based administrators and now, free-to-air broadcast partner.
While the football codes have been mostly praised throughout the pandemic, cricket has by contrast received a barrage of criticism — much a result of its own doing.
CA’s first response to COVID-19 was to stand down 80 per cent of its staff in order to save a measly $3 million, a decision that angered many.
Then it proposed hefty cuts to both players’ pay and state funding, a move that was outright refused and re-sowed distrust.
Relationships were rendered untenable after that and the sacking of CEO Kevin Roberts followed.
Now, Channel Seven boss James Warburton has labelled CA’s current management a “train wreck” after it refused to give them a discount on this season’s TV rights, something both the AFL and NRL offered their broadcast partners.
So while the upcoming series against England won’t solve cricket’s issues, it might at least get its name back into the headlines for more positive reasons.
As usual, selection remains an intriguing topic of discussion, particularly in the upcoming T20 series.
By all reports players are champing at the bit after such a long layoff, and there’s little indication Langer won’t play his absolute full-strength XI tomorrow morning.
With that in mind, running the rule over Australia’s side would suggest there’s probably only two spots up for grabs when Langer and George Bailey (the two selectors in the UK) deliberate over the make-up of the side.
They are a middle-order batsman and the third seamer. The other nine appear to be locks in the strongest XI.
David Warner and Aaron Finch have been dubbed the best white-ball opening pair in the world by Langer, and are certainties to be listed at one and two.
While Marcus Stoinis has put together a strong body of work opening the batting in recent times, the coach was unequivocal when he said Stoinis “certainly won’t displace them at the moment”.
Steve Smith and Glenn Maxwell are also near certainties at three and four.
Marnus Labuschagne was mightily impressive with a century off just 51 balls in Tuesday’s final warm-up clash, but it’s unlikely you could pick both Labuschagne and Smith in the same T20 line-up for concerns over a lack of firepower.
As for Maxwell, while his selection in the Test and even one-day sides has been a topic of hot discussion on these pages over the years, his spot in the T20 is not even up for discussion. Straight in.
Number five (keeping in mind Australia’s T20 batting order can be fluid depending on game situation) is where things get interesting.
Stoinis is an option, although his trouble rotating the strike in the middle order is well known and might hold him back. Matthew Wade played in Australia’s last T20 series against South Africa in February but failed to take his chance. Langer and Bailey might then turn to the firepower of Mitch Marsh.
At six is keeper Alex Carey, who continues to impress.
Onto the bowlers, four of whom seemingly pick themselves: Ashton Agar, Mitch Starc, Pat Cummins and Adam Zampa.
The third seamer position is the second Australian position up for grabs.
Given the raw pace of Starc and Cummins, it’s likely the selectors would opt for a variation-heavy bowler. Kane Richardson, who has played Australia’s last T20s, is the front-runner for that spot.
But Andrew Tye’s reintroduction to the Australian squad makes him a smoky for that position, too.
England’s squad also oozes class, and skipper Eoin Morgan looks in damaging touch.
Tom Banton’s first outing against the Aussies will also be one to watch.
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My predicted Australian XI for the first T20 versus England 1. David Warner 2. Aaron Finch 3. Steve Smith 4. Glenn Maxwell 5. Mitch Marsh 6. Alex Carey 7. Ashton Agar 8. Mitchell Starc 9. Pat Cummins 10. Adam Zampa 11. Kane Richardson