Vodafone Men's Ashes
Early Shield start a boost for Ashes hopefuls
Test spots will go on the line in the first half of the Sheffield Shield season, which has been brought forward to allow more time before the start of the Ashes
20 July 2021, 01:59 PM AEST
The Sheffield Shield will start in September for just the second time in the competition's 129-year history to give Australia's Test players an extensive diet of first-class cricket before the Ashes.
After a long winter and facing a 10-month absence from the Test arena, Australia's red-ball specialists will be able to play five Shield games in two months before the one-off Test against Afghanistan in late November.
Three-format players like Mitch Starc, Pat Cummins and David Warner will miss the early Shield rounds due to the T20 World Cup, but the likes of Test skipper Tim Paine, star spinner Nathan Lyon and fringe pacemen James Pattinson and Michael Neser should be firing on all cylinders by the time the Ashes begins in December.
And with a handful of Test batting spots up for grabs, the extended start to the Shield season will also give the likes of Will Pucovski, Travis Head and Marcus Harris plenty of chances to prove themselves.
Cricket Australia will confirm its domestic schedule later this week, which will also reveal a sixth Shield round to be played concurrently with the Afghanistan Test as well as a Australia A tour game at the same time as the first Ashes Test.
Playing six Shield games before the break for the KFC BBL is nothing new (a similar structure was used in two of the past three summers) but starting the first-class season in September is almost unprecedented.
The early start to the season is due to longer breaks between the early Shield games, which CA hopes will allow Australia's Test specialists, particularly its fast bowlers, to play as much red-ball cricket as possible before their Ashes defence begins.
"We always try and look for a six-four split (of Shield games) and ... certainly with this season being our biggest Test series, the Ashes, it was a little bit more heightened," Peter Roach, CA's Head of Operations, told cricket.com.au.
"There's a fair spacing between those games as well by dragging those early games forward. It might only be a matter of a week overall, but it actually creates space between games which should allow, touch wood, our best players and especially our bowlers to keep backing up in those games. That was more of a focus than the number of games (before the Ashes).
"It doesn't mean that it's fool-proof and bowlers still need a rest from time to time. But the longer you can give them between games, especially early in the season when they aren't used to the rigours of first-class cricket …. those breaks are really important."
The Shield season has commenced in September only once before, in 2012, when the Test summer against South Africa began in early November and the scheduling of the now defunct T20 Champions League in October forced the hand of officials.
The addition of a four-day game between Australia A and the England Lions, which will be played in Brisbane at the same time as the first Ashes Test at the Gabba, will also give Test hopefuls from both countries one final chance to impress selectors.
England are expected to bring an extended squad of players to Australia to allow them to play some intra-squad matches before the Ashes commence on December 8.
But Roach said playing the tour game in Brisbane will mean those who just miss selection for the first Test could still put their name forward for later in the series.
"It's important for both teams with four games to follow that first Gabba Test that we give another red-ball opportunity to players on the fringes of both Test teams," he said.
"It'll allow both teams to have their top 11 players at the Gabba and those just outside the squad, rather than sitting on the sidelines running drinks, they can be playing a red-ball game just down the road.
"We didn't want to have each team having 15 players in Brisbane (for the Test) and another 12 or so in another city (for the tour game)."
The full men's and women's domestic schedules are expected to be revealed on Wednesday.
Vodafone Men's Test v Afghanistan
Nov 27 – Dec 1: Test match, Blundstone Arena
Vodafone Men's Ashes v England
Dec 8-12: First Test, The Gabba
Dec 16-20: Second Test, Adelaide Oval
Dec 26-30: Third Test, MCG
Jan 5-9: Fourth Test, SCG
Jan 14-18: Fifth Test, Perth Stadium