Smith, middle order chief among Australia's worries

Pat Cummins is flying home, Darren Lehmann is already there, and Steven Smith and David Warner will be looking eagerly at their calendars. All know that the best place for Australia to prepare for the forthcoming Ashes series is on more familiar turf than India, where an ODI series defeat has underlined numerous issues for the aforementioned figures to consider between now and the Gabba.

The reliance of the team on runs from Smith and Warner is chief among them, highlighted by the former's perceptible tail-off in productivity since his outstanding tour of India in February and March. In 10 internationals since, taking in the Champions Trophy and tours of Bangladesh and India, Smith has managed 347 runs at 34.70 without a century.

In another XI with stronger batting down the order, such a return from the captain would not be disastrous - Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting all went through slumps as captain while getting help from teammates - but among the 2017 Australians, Smith simply cannot afford to be worn down this way. Finding a way to refresh, mentally as much as anything else, will be critical for Smith in the weeks between now and the Ashes. By his own admission, Smith has not been batting the way he wished to.

"To be honest, I wasn't feeling great at the start of the series, I wasn't holding the bat the way I liked to and I was having a few issues there that I was working on," Smith said in Nagpur after the series finished 4-1 in favour of India. "But I think I've slowly found a nice tempo which I'm after. I would have loved to score a lot more runs.

"I've got myself in on a few occasions and not gone on to get the big runs that I previously have been. From that aspect, as the leader of the team, it's been disappointing. But I guess sometimes that's cricket. You have those periods where you're not playing or getting the scores you really like. Something hopefully I can turn it around and hopefully contribute in the T20s."

The issue of finding an even batting contribution is interlinked with Smith's form. The mental weight of knowing a collapse is likely to follow your wicket is a heavy thing to bear, leaving Lehmann and the rest of the national selection panel to ponder the shape of the batting order over the next few weeks. One figure to emerge with promise in India was Marcus Stoinis, who showed plenty of composure while building on the impact he made against New Zealand at Eden Park earlier in the year. Equally, his bowling looked capable of doing the sort of job once performed ably by Shane Watson.

A question for many concerns the way Stoinis struggled with the bat in the 2016-17 Sheffield Shield, cobbling a mere 197 runs at 17.90 without once passing 50. At the season's end, he relocated to Western Australia, the state of his birth, and in this may be found the seeds of his struggles last summer. Stoinis' father was gravely ill, forcing numerous cross-country flights whenever possible between matches. Stoinis' new coach Justin Langer has counselled that not too much should be read into the previous season.

"I think the main reason Marcus didn't have a great season last year was that his mind was probably elsewhere," Langer said. "His dad was very unwell and never underestimate that. It's really hard to perform when you're not necessarily feeling settled off the field. I think his game's in pretty good shape. He's a great hitter and my gut feeling is that last year was a bit of a blip for him because he'd had such a tough season personally.

"With him, he just needs to tighten up his game a little bit. He's got the hitting game, and a strong defensive game, but he's just got to work out now how he's going to go about playing first-class cricket consistently, then, hopefully, Test cricket. Is he going to be a real power hitter like Ben Stokes, or is he going to be a guy who really bats for a long period of time? That's all part of his evolution as a first-class, and then, hopefully, Test batsman."

Numerous other options have filtered through the team in recent months, not least another Warrior in Hilton Cartwright, who opened the innings in India with little success while Aaron Finch recovered from a calf injury. Cartwright enjoyed an outstanding 2016-17 in the Shield, but his bowling appears to need more polish if he is to bowl the "Watson overs" in an Australian Test side.

"Hilton Cartwright batted No. 3 for us last season and had a breakout season. He hits the ball as hard as anyone in world cricket, he's a brilliant fieldsman and his medium-pacers are handy," Langer said. "I'd say he probably has to keep working on that side of his game if he's going to be a genuine allrounder and bowl 10-15 overs of real quality in an innings. That's his challenge, but he's an outstanding young bloke with a great work ethic."

More doubts surround the Victorian duo of Glenn Maxwell and Matthew Wade, who each spent time out of the ODI team in India. Maxwell's mature Test hundred against the same opponents had appeared to be the turning of a corner. But he has found several blind alleys since, at a time when he needed big runs to counterbalance any lingering doubts among the selectors about whether he can play with as much authority on Australia's bouncier tracks as he did in Ranchi.

As for Wade, the decision to drop him for the part-time glovework of Pete Handscomb did not suggest he has much left in the way of credit ahead of the Ashes. He was back in the team by the end of the series and struck a handful of useful blows towards the end of the innings in Nagpur. But the dropping of a difficult chance off James Faulkner in Australia's unsuccessful defence of 242 will not help, meaning Wade needs runs and catches upon his return home while hoping the likes of Peter Nevill and Alex Carey do not surge past him.

Among the bowlers, Cummins' impact was something to take out of the matches against India and Bangladesh, as was the welcome return of a fit and rhythmical Nathan Coulter-Nile. As Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc enter the later stages of their recoveries from side and foot problems, respectively, the re-emergence of another sometime Australian Test paceman - the highly experienced Peter Siddle - is cause for optimism, given that the pace division is growing deeper at the right time of the year.