England have clung on to second in the official ICC Test rankings after the winter, although probably only thanks to the weight of the bails at Eden Park.
State of play
Drawing a three-Test series 0-0 in New Zealand fell below expectations, after the team had made an impressive start to the post-Strauss era under the captaincy of Alastair Cook by coming from behind to win 2-1 in India.
Funny to think that Michael Clarke took Australia to India six weeks or so ago in reasonably upbeat mood, after a 3-0 drubbing of Sri Lanka – making it 12 wins in 20 Tests for the remodelled Aussies, and seven series with a single defeat (1-0 at home to South Africa) since Clarke took over from Ricky Ponting after the 2010-11 Ashes disaster. Now, however, they are in disarray, after a 4-0 mauling by MS Dhoni's team even if they are still ranked fourth in the world.
What happens next?
Most of the England squad have been given a month or so to recharge their batteries after the New Zealand tour, before beginning the preparations for a return two-Test series against the Black Caps in late May and early June. Those games, at Lord's and Headingley, should now carry much more edge than expected – perhaps one small bonus for England's cricket director Andy Flower after what he has admitted were generally disappointing tour performances. Flower will then take a back seat for most of June, with the one-day coach, Ashley Giles, linking up with captain Cook for the ICC Champions Trophy – in which England's first game is against Australia, at Edgbaston on 8 June. If England reach the final – also at Edgbaston, on 23 June – they would have just over a fortnight to refocus on long-form cricket before the first Ashes Test at Trent Bridge.
Australia, meanwhile, now have that rare and precious commodity in international cricket, a decent break, to lick their Indian wounds and prepare for twin challenges in England. Mickey Arthur, the team's South African coach, has already expressed his gratitude to Cricket Australia for their support, and reaffirmed his aim of re-establishing the team at the top of the world Test rankings. So the chairman of selectors, John Inverarity, and the rest of his panel are tasked with finding the players first to defend the Champions Trophy that Australia won in South Africa in 2009, and then to regain the Ashes. Other than that, they have four-day games at Somerset and Worcester to prepare for the first Test.
England's Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann have had elbow operations in Minnesota in the past couple of months, and Kevin Pietersen provided another injury scare when he returned home before the third Test in New Zealand with a knee problem. But England are confident that all three will be playing again well before Trent Bridge. Clarke is the most significant of several headaches for Australia. After missing the fourth Test in India with the recurrence of an old back problem, he has been ruled out for between seven and 10 weeks since returning to Sydney. Even the pessimistic end of that projection would see him back in action in time to take the reins for the Champions Trophy, but Australia's medics have left themselves some wriggle room.
Mitchell Starc, the tall, left-arm quick bowler who was one of the few players to impress in India, also returned home early under a fitness cloud, in his case bone spurs on his ankle. Starc is confident of being fit for the Champions Trophy but his injury continued an unhappy trend among Australia's battery of young pace bowlers, of whom Pat Cummins has been the most unfortunate. Cummins, a teenager who made a stunning Test debut in South Africa in late 2011, has since suffered two major back injuries. But he is bowling again in Sydney and aiming to come to England with an Australia A squad who are heading this way before the main Ashes tour, playing games against Scotland, Ireland and Gloucestershire.
Issues to be resolved
Another major consolation from the New Zealand trip for England was the way in which most of the selectorial loose ends were tied up. Nick Compton quietened chatter over his ability to open with Cook by making a century in each of the first two Tests. That allowed Joe Root, who had been mooted as an alternative at the top of the order, to bed in at No6. Stuart Broad, whose position had also been questioned after underwhelming performances in India, recaptured his old zip in Wellington.
So even from this distance, it would not seem too risky to hazard a guess at England's XI for Trent Bridge, injuries permitting – Cook, Compton, Trott, Pietersen, Bell, Root, Prior, Swann, Broad, Anderson, Finn. On the other hand if Swann were to suffer further problems in his elbow, England would have a real dilemma. Stick with Monty Panesar, who bowled well in tandem with Swann in India, but struggled as a lone spinner in New Zealand? Or turn to James Tredwell, the unsung Kent off-spinner who comes closer to matching Swann's all-round package with his ability with the bat and at second slip, and would relish the number of left-handers in Australia's line-up.
Where do you want to start with Australia? Perhaps with Shane Watson, who took over the captaincy from Clarke in Delhi last week – but was not even assured of his place in the team by Inverarity when the selector was grilled on the subject. Watson seriously blotted his copybook by failing to follow Arthur's instructions in India, and then storming home when he had been dropped with three other offenders – and even wondered aloud about his international future himself. Now he says he's desperate to join the Ashes quest, but as Inverarity pointed out, his recent batting record has been very ordinary.
However, Australia would still seem to need his experience in the middle order as they struggle to recover from the retirements of Ponting and Mike Hussey. Ed Cowan and David Warner seem likely to open, but could Phil Hughes really be trusted at three? Usman Khawaja at six? Or Steve Smith? All three have talent, but their inclusion would surely leave England's bowlers licking their lips.
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