CANBERRA: Skipper Tim Paine Monday said he expects the banned Steve Smith and David Warner to play "a huge" role in this year's Ashes series against England, with Australia now in "a really good place."
After a torrid 12 months marred by the ball-tampering row and poor form without their top stars, Australia ended their summer on a high by emphatically winning two Tests against Sri Lanka.
They claimed the first in Brisbane by an innings and 40 runs and the second in Canberra by 366 runs, following a tough home series defeat to top-ranked India.
Smith and Warner's bans for their role in trying to alter the ball in South Africa expire late next month and they are widely expected to quickly return to the national set-up.
"I think everyone to a degree has to earn their stripes. I think those two have got plenty of runs in the bank if you like," Paine said when asked if they could slot straight back in.
"Look, I see us going to the Ashes and them having a huge part in us winning the series. That's how I see how important they are to this team.
"We know how good they are and hopefully once their bans are up they'll be welcomed back and they will win Test matches like they did before."
Without the experienced pair, Australia struggled. But at least they broke a century drought stretching back to October in Canberra, with Joe Burns, Travis Head, Kurtis Patterson and Usman Khawaja all cashing in.
Their knocks put them in prime position for the Ashes against an England side reeling from an embarrassing capitulation in the West Indies.
Following a 381-run defeat by the hosts in the first Test in Barbados last month, England suffered a 10-wicket thrashing in Antigua on Saturday to lose the three-match series 2-0.
- Won back respect -
With the imminent return of Warner and Smith, there are now question marks over Marcus Harris and number four Marnus Labuschagne.
Harris struggled in Canberra on a batting-friendly wicket as fellow opener Burns hit 180, while Labuschagne managed just six and four in his two innings.
Khawaja's snapping of a run drought is widely seen as being enough for him to remain at first drop, with Head's 161 and 59 not out sealing his place at number five.
Paine said he has a "fair idea" of what the Ashes team might look like.
"What we have seen over this summer is we are starting to build a squad with plenty of depth. There's probably anywhere between 16 and 25 players we think are now in the mix, which is a really good place to be," he added.
For Paine, heading to England, and as skipper, is something that has been on his mind for months.
"I've been dreaming about it actually," he said. "I'm happy now that we've got this (Sri Lanka series) out of the way and I can put everything into it because every Australian cricketer can't wait to go and play an Ashes series, particularly in England."
The ball-tampering scandal, which led to year-long bans for Smith and Warner and nine months in exile for Cameron Bancroft, led to Australia changing its cricketing culture and toning down its aggressive sledging.
Paine said he was "really proud of the way we have gone about it".
"We spoke at the start of the summer that our main priority was to win back the respect of our Australian public and cricket fans. Sitting here now, I think we've gone a long way to doing that," he said.