The argument for playing one-day matches before a Test series has always been straightforward. You have an entree before the main. For spectators, shorter matches rouse the appetite. For players, it follows the principle of building up training loads, working their way into the most demanding format a day at a time.
On both sides of the boundary it creates continuity, an earlier start to the threads of a story. It sets up rivalries within rivalries. Some players get an early boost, some slump and have to recover. When they step out for the first Test match against the same opponent, there is already context rather than writing from scratch.
The gold standard is the 2005 Ashes. Through the preceding one-dayers, Ricky Ponting’s side were off the boil. They dropped a tri-series match to Bangladesh and kept being pushed by England. Kevin Pietersen’s batting forced his decisive Test inclusion. Jason Gillespie’s bowling was nullified. The final was a tie, setting the stage for the epic wrestle to come over five Tests
Australian summers have used all kinds of schedules. One-dayers used to be mixed in among the Tests, then they became the runway, and more recently the post-script in January or February. The reason for that last change was simple enough: television wanted cricket in the primetime evening slot, and if administrators had to schedule day-nighters then they preferred them during summer holidays to protect ticket sales.
These days, though, the Big Bash League can take care of those January evenings. One-day internationals have got in the way, requiring a change of channels, a change of commentary, a change of mindset to the 50-over format that seems slow in comparison. The matches are marooned without context, staffed by players who are mentally tired from their Test efforts or in two minds about being pulled from their BBL teams.
This summer, pandemic-enforced as it may have been, is a real-time refresher course on why starting international contests with limited-overs matches is the best method. The Australian women’s team did it in October against New Zealand. The men started against India last week, winning the first two ODIs within three high-scoring days.
Sure, David Warner will miss some cricket, but his muscle strain could have happened fielding a ball at training. If he makes it back for the Tests he will still have the confidence of recent immaculate scores of 83 and 69, in a couple of huge partnerships opening the innings. Steve Smith has been batting with a pure destructiveness we have never seen before. Twice in a row he has peeled off a century from 62 balls, slower only than noted hitters James Faulkner and Glenn Maxwell among Australians. Smith had an indifferent Test season last summer but this time is primed to do well. Likewise his protege Marnus Labuschagne, who batted anonymously and to great effect in support on Sunday.
Maxwell has been a source of destruction: 108 runs from 48 balls for one dismissal across his two innings, scored in a blur of switch-hits and reverse ramps and helicopter swats that have taunted India. Aaron Finch made his 17th one-day hundred plus anther 60. Neither is in the Test squad, but there is significance in the way that so many Australian batsmen have smashed around India’s bowling.
On their last visit two years ago, the fast-bowling dominance of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami led to India’s Test series win. That’s the same opening pair that has just been looted for 284 runs in two games. The chance of a knock-on effect is obvious, with the bowlers facing additional pressure and frustration that might throw them out of kilter, while Australian batsmen who haven’t faced them yet would be feeling more confident already.
There is also the chance that the storyline thread could take a different direction. Shami has actually bowled superbly so far, he has just been short of luck and expertly played by Smith. Things might not be going his way, but if he maintains his standard they probably will. Through these early days of struggle you could still find the subtle signals that he might soon wreck an Australian innings at a crucial juncture. Or Bumrah’s displeasure with his unfamiliar struggles may see him hit back with a vengeance.
These are the possibilities that the entree series gives. These games, plus the three Twenty20s to come, plus the warm-up matches across three days each involving India’s broader squad and the Australia A team. All feeding into the curiosity and speculation ahead of the real stuff starting with the first Test on 17 December. When the first bowler takes the pink Kookaburra in hand on that afternoon in Adelaide, all of this will have led up to that moment, and all of us watching will find the moment richer for it.