You don’t just turn up to the Ashes, hope
for the best and expect to somehow win back the Urn. Strategies need to be
tested, the team’s composition settled and players’ form honed in hard-fought
series against respectable opposition leading up to the great battle.

So why does Australia not have a single Test match scheduled for
six months before the first Ashes Test in November?

After the current tour of South Africa and a much-anticipated jaunt to Bangladesh, the Aussies were due for a four-month
break before touring Zimbabwe for two Tests in September. The two Test
minnows would hardly have constituted the toughest Ashes preparation anyway,
but Zimbabwe has withdrawn from Test cricket for 2006, leaving a
gaping hole around a lot of one-day cricket in the Aussies’ calendar.

Complicating the matter, India’s cricket board, the BCCI,
approached Pakistan and Australia in mid-January to propose a
one-day tournament in September outside the International Cricket
Future Tours Programme.
Both Pakistan and Australia were due to play Zimbabwe in this period, and the BCCI saw this
unexpected gap as an opportunity both to profit from two drawcard countries in India and to weaken the ICC’s hold on world
cricket. The BCCI has long resented its perceived second-class treatment by the
ICC and is using its burgeoning financial influence in the cricket world to
take on the world governing body.

Cricket Australia has thus found itself
faced with a choice between, on the one hand, a superfluous one-day tour which
would alienate the ICC, and on the other an extra six weeks off, neither of
which helps Ricky Ponting’s team one bit.

What Australia needs is one more Test series against
world-class opposition around early spring. The fact that five weeks have
passed without an official decision on the Indian offer indicates that this is
exactly what Cricket Australia is hastily trying to organise. This may be the
most crucial decision made before the toss in Brisbane on 23 November. You simply can’t go into
the Ashes off two Tests against Bangladesh and a six-month break.