England's "Academy" team have arrived for their tour in Dubai, where they will play four ODIs and two T20s against their Australian counterparts, the Shooting Stars, starting on Thursday. The results could be a good barometer of the current strength of these two leading women's cricket nations, whose senior teams are set to battle it out for the Ashes this summer.
I say "Academy" team because England have actually chosen two contracted girls who went out with the full squad to New Zealand - keeper/batsman Amy Jones and batsman Nat Sciver (called in to replace injured Lauren Winfield), plus three more contracted players - Tammy Beaumont, Georgia Elwiss, and Tash Farrant (who all missed out on a trip to New Zealand, but have all played for England). In addition Jodie Dibble, Sonia Odedra, Beth Langston and Fran Wilson are all included. They have all trained with the senior players over the winter and have also all played for the senior side. In total these nine players have 152 appearances for England under their belts.
In contrast the Shooting Stars have just one contracted player on the tour in Elyse Villani. She has played 29 times for her country. The only other capped player is Delissa Kimmince who has made 19 appearances for the Southern Stars. The rest of the Shooting Stars are all under 22 years old (seven of them are teenagers with the youngest just 16).
England's starting line-up is likely to be the nine players above, plus two from Butler, Hartley, Evelyn Jones, Luff and Macdonald (all current Academy players who make up the squad). It will be an experienced team, but can they make that experience count? And can anyone perform well enough to force their way into contention for the Ashes squad for the summer?
From a batting perspective Sciver will certainly be there come what may. Jones will be also there as back-up keeper, but she could push for a batting slot if she can make runs with some style. Beaumont will again try and enhance her claims with the bat, but with 58 games played for England and still no score above 44, she would surely have to bat out of her skin to be back in Ashes' contention. Fran Wilson has been on the periphery of the England squad since she debuted in 2010 against Sri Lanka. She was selected for the following tour to Australia, but two ducks in two T20s brought her England appearances to an abrupt end. She has not played for the senior team since 2011. Georgia Elwiss has batted well for Sussex, but has had little chance to show what she can do for England. She might get the chance on this tour. From the Academy left-hander Evelyn Jones may get a chance to open the batting, but it will be a big step up from the Div 2 county cricket that she has been playing.
With the ball seamers Elwiss and Farrant need to show their value as centrally-contracted England players. Both have had various injury problems over the past year, but now is the time to step up. It will also be interesting to see if Nat Sciver bowls on this tour. She bowled just two overs in New Zealand. Also coming back from injury is Beth Langston. She last played a competitive game in October 2013, so it is difficult to expect too much from her. 26 year old Odedra (the oldest player in the Academy team) made the Test team last year that lost to India and could do with some wickets on this tour to keep her name in the frame.
As for spinners, Jodie Dibble is a former left-arm seamer turned spinner after shoulder issues; Hartley is another left-arm spinner and Butler is a young off-spinner in the Danni Wyatt mould. Each is likely to get a chance and they must be hoping they can grab it with both hands, although there is quite a list of spinners ahead of them - Hazell, Knight, Grundy and Marsh.
The first ODI is on Thursday and as soon as I have a scorecard I will tweet a link to it, although it seems very unlikely there will be any live scorecard. It should be an intriguing tour.