The contrast in Australia and England’s Ashes preparation couldn’t be greater, but the home side’s lean lead-in may just give it the physical and mental edge over the course of the series.
Fears an underdone Australia might struggle early in this year’s Ashes series are genuine.
From now until the Ashes opener on 8 December Justin Langer’s side is set to play just one Test while England is set to play seven, each against the world’s top two nations.
The Aussies will face an Afghanistan side playing just their seventh ever Test match on 27 November.
Chief selector Trevor Hohns recently said he was “very concerned” about the build-up.
“England certainly are playing plenty of Test cricket and we haven’t got much in the way of anything going,” Hohns said in April.
But former captain Ricky Ponting flipped that narrative this week.
He argued that, contrary to Hohns’s concerns, the shorter lead-in will work in favour of Tim Paine’s men.
“I honestly don’t think it matters that much,” Ponting, who played in eight Ashes series, told cricket.com.au.
“If they (Australia) get a bit of first-class cricket in and they get that one Test match in against Afghanistan, are you better off going into the Ashes series with not a lot or going in with a lot (of Tests)?
“Ashes series are so physically and mentally draining; you might be better off going in with less. But it doesn’t matter what you’re going in with, it’s about what you do in those big moments, as we saw with the India series.”
The question is really whether Australia’s ‘freshness’ at the back-end of the series will offset and even outweigh England’s apparent head start on preparations heading into the Gabba.
It’s a tricky question, but mental energy is set to be a huge factor later this year.
Players report that Ashes series are by some margin the most mentally draining.
Steve Smith said that by the end of the most recent Ashes series in 2019 his body had “shut down”.
“It was probably a bit of everything: mental, emotional, physical,” he said weeks after The Oval Test.
“Towards the last Test match it got to Day 2 and my mind was saying keep going, but my body had shut down and wouldn’t let me do anything.”
The 2020-21 series is set to be all that and potentially more.
COVID restrictions could still be in place in summertime in one form or another, which have contributed to player exhaustion in the last 12 months.
India’s stand-in skipper Ajinkya Rahane and coach Ravi Shastri spoke of the “mentally draining” experience of life inside the biosecure bubble during last summer’s epic Test series.
And while England have committed to rotating players this winter, the busy schedule may well catch up with them.
Further, while Australia’s Test schedule is lean, the majority of players won’t suffer from a lack of red-ball cricket.
As many as eight players in the box seat for the Gabba Test could be available for their respective states from the start of the season — Will Pucovski, Marnus Labuschagne, Travis Head, Cameron Green, Tim Paine, James Pattinson, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon – provided none are selected in the 15-man T20 World Cup squad.
Only three players – David Warner, Steve Smith and Pat Cummins – guaranteed to play the Gabba Test will go into it with little long-form cricket under the belt.
They’re also the three players perhaps best equipped to shift from one format to the other.