Steven Smith is making encouraging progress in his recovery from the elbow injury which ruled him out of the current Australia tours with the beginning of the domestic season a potential comeback target.
Smith was sidelined in the latter part of last season when the elbow problem flared up following the India series before returning briefly for New South Wales ahead of the IPL. While playing for Delhi Capitals he felt further pain and he was unavailable for the West Indies and Bangladesh trips.
He told cricket.com.au earlier this month that the Ashes series was his priority and he would be willing to forego the T20 World Cup if it ensured he would be fit for that.
A cautious approach has been taken with his rehab but he is currently increasing the amount of batting he can do as part of New South Wales' pre-season.
"He's been building it up nicely," Phil Jaques, the New South Wales head coach, told ESPNcricinfo. "He's been very conscientious about his rehab and in terms of how long he bats it for, he's building up his time which is great and his elbow is responding really well to it.
"We've taken a really slow approach with him to make sure we don't have too many setbacks by pushing too hard but we are stepping things up gradually. He's definitely moving in the right direction, he's not going backwards. Hopefully he'll be ready to go once the season kicks off.
"I don't think he really got rid of it last time so it came back…hopefully if he gets the tolerance through the tendon that he needs to then he should be able to manage it."
How much cricket Smith plays for New South Wales this season depends on a lot of factors. There is potentially a small window for those selected for the T20 World Cup to play a few Marsh Cup matches in mid-September, but if Smith is part of that trip he won't have any first-class cricket ahead of the Test season starting due to the quarantine period on return. There is also the resumption of the IPL to consider.
However, if he doesn't make the World Cup there are up to five Sheffield Shield games available before the Afghanistan Test at the end of November.
The Sheffield Shield is set to start on September 28 with a schedule mapped out which is hoped will give players time to rest and prepare between matches which should be particularly advantageous for the quick bowlers.
"Last season, and there was no other way around it, there was certainly a big load for the quicks to turnaround really quickly," Jaques said. "It allows us as coaching staff to prepare the players the best they can for each fixture which is what the Australian domestic summer has always built itself on, to be able to train and prepare for each game individually."
Quite how the season eventually plays out remains uncertain amid Covid-19 and while there is confidence that hubs can be avoided Jaques believes players will again do what is needed despite the toll it can take. "As professionals we adapt where we need to and if that's called upon again I think we'll do it but if there's ways around it we'll look to explore that as well," he said.
Towards the end of last season's Sheffield Shield the decision was taken to revamp the New South Wales batting line-up after they had been bundled out for 32 by Tasmania. Lachlan Hearne, Matthew Gilkes and Baxter Holt were given a chance while faith was shown in Jason Sangha, who responded with a century against Queensland, and Jack Edwards who made a match-winning hundred in the Marsh Cup final.
"The ceiling is massive with those guys, they are super talented," Jaques said. "They just need some experience and game time which they got some of last year. We are expecting them to go to another level this year and I'm sure that will come with experience. I was really happy with how they went, to be able to play a final will only put them in good stead. They are definitely the future and think we have a really good mix in the group."
New South Wales will make a decision on their captaincy positions in the upcoming weeks. Last season Pat Cummins was given the role in the Marsh Cup while Peter Nevill led the Sheffield Shield side until he was absent at the end of the season for the birth of his child. Kurtis Patterson stood in for both formats.
"Whatever role Peter plays within our team he's a leader, he's a top guy, he's someone the players look up to," Jaques said. "Whoever is actually captaining they'll be helped out by a lot of leaders."