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Ashes or bust! There's only one contest that counts for Team Australia

Pat Howard has taken the controls and is steering the team in a direction many do not like.

Pat Howard has taken the controls and is steering the team in a direction many do not like. Photo: Getty Images

FOR more than a century, the Australian XI cricket team has simply been the national team. Now it's a franchise. Team Australia, let's call it.

Eight bowlers have been handed the new ball by captain Michael Clarke since early November, when South Africa lobbed in Brisbane, and while injury prompted some of the musical chairs, it is a sign of the new order.

The outcry over Mitchell Starc's omission at the MCG has been loud and spirited. How can Australia not select the best team for a match? How can the baggy green be tossed around with such a lack of respect? Australia's high-performance manager Pat Howard and his sports scientists are tinkering with tradition. Rotation schmotation. The derision has been almost universal.

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Yet this break with accepted wisdom, where players cling to Test spots like a life raft, has been coming for a while. A string of pacemen breaking down has accelerated its arrival, but what Howard is attempting is a seismic shift in the way the Test side is managed. Handed the keys to the country's most treasured sporting machine after the Argus report - commissioned when Australia was at rock bottom - Howard, the former Wallaby, has taken the controls and is steering the team in a direction many do not like.

He might argue he is steering it out of the past. The problem for Cricket Australia, in a public relations sense, is that those running the show - Howard, national selector John Inverarity and co - have very different priorities to the average punter. Their KPIs demand it.

Many compared resting Starc for the Boxing Day Test with dropping him for a grand final. Well, take it as read: CA, as much as it will deny it publicly, does not regard this contest with Sri Lanka as even a semi-final, let alone the last weekend in September. Fans may regard Boxing Day as the highlight of the calendar, but Howard and Inverarity are more concerned with opponent than occasion.

Inverarity's comparison at the weekend with English Premier League and AFL clubs, where star players are often interchanged or rested, was not well received and not greatly composed, but it reflects Team Australia's priorities.

Talk privately to anyone associated with the Australian team in planning or management and they will tell you this: we will be judged on the Ashes, and the Ashes alone. There is a trepidation in their voices when they say it, as if they are concerned they won't be ready in time or don't have the assets to win it. No wonder they have been organising logistics for next winter's trip to England for many months, and probably only casting a passing eye to proceedings at the MCG.

It is why selectors had no qualms at all about resting Starc. They are terrified of yet another young quick going down, and having earmarked Jackson Bird for the Ashes anyway, see the Sri Lankans' kamikaze batsmen as ideal debut fodder. Even if you think Starc's sidelining wasn't warranted, you can't dispute the valuable opportunity it gave to the talented and deserved Bird.

The debate, doubtless, will have a sequel in Sydney next week. Who will make way for Starc? Peter Siddle, Mitchell Johnson, or Bird? All bowled well in the first innings on Wednesday, but that is no guarantee of retention. Indeed, Johnson was Australia's best bowler against South Africa in Perth but was subbed out against Sri Lanka in Hobart.

CA must be careful not to treat players like objects - shuffling them in and out of the team on a whim, or an injury projection - without proper explanation, advanced notice and cognisance of the overall objective.

The real test is how the squad policy will play out when everything - read, the Ashes - is on the line.

Will Australia's growing stock of pacemen be chopped and changed from Trent Bridge to the Oval? Would Siddle, with red flags being waved about his over rates, be left out of a deciding fifth Test? For Team Australia, wrestling with old and new principles in a bid to keep fast bowlers fit, that is the moment of truth. That is its grand final.

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