When asked why Australia retained the urn last summer, of course the biggest reason is their world class performers. With Steven Smith scoring that amount of runs, and Pat Cummins taking wickets any team would be halfway there to success.
However, one factor that goes unnoticed is how county cricket provided some Australians the perfect preparation for the The Ashes battle.
The emerging star of last summer for Australia was the first ever concussion substitute Marnus Labuschagne. Although those who followed Glamorgan for the early months of the season will not have been surprised in the slightest.
In 10 games for Glamorgan, Labuschagne scored over 1000 runs at an average of 65.52. He brought this form into The Ashes averaging 50.43. Labuschagne had the perfect foundation heading into The Ashes with matches in English conditions against a Dukes ball.
If he hadn’t played Championship cricket, the first time he faced a Dukes ball would have been at Lord’s with Jofra Archer 22 yards away. He put the hard work in early in the summer and saw the rewards on the Test stage.
Peter Siddle has spent the last two seasons at Essex and was a surprise selection in Australia’s touring squad. However, his selection was justified with seven wickets across three Tests and he played an excellent holding role for the premier quicks of Josh Hazlewood and Cummins.
Siddle learned the craft of bowling on English wickets after taking 71 Championship wickets at an average of 18 over the last two summers. Siddle has spent this time perfecting his line and length and movement of the Dukes ball.
James Pattinson, another who would not have expected to play more Tests than Mitchell Starc last summer, also played his role as a holding bowler brilliantly. With an economy rate of just over 2.5 runs per over, he benefited from a successful season with Nottinghamshire in 2017 where he claimed 32 wickets.
Australia’s holding bowlers in a four-man attack are crucial, and the duo of Siddle and Pattinson used their county experience very effectively.
One reason prior Championship experience has helped is that it has allowed bowlers to adapt to both different pitch and overhead conditions. Mitchell Johnson had more bowling talent than most, however he couldn’t adjust his bowling in England and was not as effective.
Siddle and Pattinson, through multiple seasons on the county circuit, have perfected their skills. Labuschagne also learned the skills needed to score runs in England. Many batsmen have found it hard to score against the moving Dukes ball, Labuschagne worked hard to adapt and realise all the mental and technical requirements.
Some players, the elite of the game, will naturally be successful due to talent alone. Someone like Steve Smith doesn’t need to prepare for English conditions with county form to be successful, nor did Hazlewood or Cummins. However, it’s the squad players such as Siddle and Pattinson who grabbed the extra 5% needed to build a perfectly balanced side.
Championship experience does not always guarantee success. Prior to the 2015 Ashes, Adam Voges had been playing county cricket since 2008 and was playing for Nottinghamshire. Perfect preparation however, he failed in the series averaging only 28 with the bat.
Voges’ Ashes failures show that although it is great preparation, there is still a huge step up from county cricket to Ashes cricket. Mental toughness is one thing that cannot be learnt on the circuit.
Another advocate for the County Championship being great for batsmen to learn their techniques is opener Chris Rogers. Rogers played for Middlesex while scoring a Lords’ century for Australia in 2015.
Rogers was a very typically English batsmen, almost opposite in style to David Warner. Where Rogers averaged 60 in 2015, Warner averaged slightly less that summer with 46, and a disastrous summer of 2019 saw him average 9.5. Rogers’ technique, formed through years of county cricket, was a better fit for English conditions.
England seem to have learned this lesson themselves. After attempting to shoehorn Jason Roy into opening the batting, having no opening credentials for Surrey in the Championship, England’s selectors showed they preferred ODI form over County Championship form.
Now England have settled on a school of top order batsmen consisting of Rory Burns, Dominic Sibley, Zak Cawley and Joe Denly. All four have proven themselves in the county format. England have finally turned to county cricket to find new batsmen.
They have learned from Australia that the County Championship can produce fine technical cricketers and, if they have the temperament for Test Cricket, can have good international careers. County cricket is still hugely important and should be given the respect it deserves. It can win you The Ashes.
Australians playing county cricket is not something that should be stopped however. It provides county cricket with higher quality and greater competition, it is the most competitive domestic cricket there is.
Overseas imports only strengthen that claim, and make English cricketers improve their game to match the intensity. A good domestic circuit helps the national team, however Australians used it to better effect than England in 2019.