t is always a relief when the Ashes begins, even if the first ball ends up in the palms of second slip. Normally, it marks the end of weeks of trash-talking and tortured build-up.
When, weather permitting, the first ball is bowled at midnight tonight (10am in Brisbane) – not by James Anderson, as many might have imagined – the relief will be different. This is an Ashes series like no other, one that has arrived by stealth.
For months, we wondered whether it would happen at all and, if it did, which Englishmen would travel to Australia, due to its hard-line Covid-19 stance. The talk was all quarantine conditions and family tickets. After a year of posturing, the green light was given.
Next came the scandals. These two proud nations saw their cricketing cultures plastered across front pages for the wrong reasons. England’s issue ran deeper, as it faced a reckoning over institutional racism. Australia saw its cultural reboot rubbished when the captain resigned over lewd images and messages. Each side might reflect that the issues exposed by the crises are not isolated to their opponents’ nation.
The cricket? Well there’s not been much of that. Until three weeks ago, five members of each squad and the two Head Coaches were more worried about the T20 World Cup, at which England destroyed Australia, only to go out in the semi-finals. Australia, inevitably, peaked at the right time to win the thing, meaning England had to wait five painful days in a Dubai bubble for a charter flight to Queensland, where they were subjected to two weeks’ quarantine.
By then, England had another two dozen players beavering away in Brisbane. The problem was the weather. When the two parts of the squad were finally united, they scheduled seven days’ of intra-squad warm-up cricket, but the rain only allowed seven sessions. That was better than Australia, though, who made do with nets and some gentle middle practice. That is the same Australia who have not played a Test match since January (when they lost at the venue of the First Test for the first time since before their new captain or new wicketkeeper were born). The two teams are living together, unusually, which raises hopes of a kinder series than the last in Australia.
The whole journey to this point, from the moment the pandemic arrived, has been fraught with uncertainty. Even now, on series’ eve, we do not know where one of the Tests will take place, now Perth has been stripped of the last game because of its uncompromising approach to Covid. And without any travelling English fans, there is not much Ashes fever in Sydney, where most media are camped out due to tough regulations in Queensland.
All of this has hardly been perfect preparation for a tour England have won once in 35 years in a country where, of their last 10 matches, they have lost nine and won none.
When they named their squad, England seemed just as doomed. There was relief that everyone available had decided to travel. The trouble was that Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer, two key cogs, were unavailable, and there was scant optimism or inspiration to be found. They had just one batter with an average over 36, and just one bowler of genuine pace. They had won only one of their last nine Tests in what has proved a bruising year.
Since, the picture has improved. While Archer remains a sad loss, the return of Stokes from injury and a mental health break changes the complexion of their side, providing a second batter of clout and allowing them to play five bowlers – one of whom will hopefully be a spinner. Beyond pure cricketing ability (and he has that in abundance), Stokes brings vital leadership, intimidation and a mongrel.
While the weather has ruined their build-up, England will not mind it too much. Firstly, it should create conditions that suit them at the Gabba, an unforgiving ground where they have not won since 1986. And if it continues and washes some play away, the chances of heading to Adelaide not 1-0 down increase. Getting out of Brisbane alive is key. They might reflect that the addition of a second day-night match might suits their bowlers, too.
To stand a chance, England need Stokes to find his feet fast, Joe Root to win his battle with Pat Cummins (No1 batter vs No1 bowler is just mouth-watering), and to rotate their bowlers cutely. Mark Wood and Ollie Robinson, on Ashes debut, need to suit Australian conditions as well as England hope they will. They also need the likes of Rory Burns, Dawid Malan and Jack Leach – experienced cricketers with Ashes records better than their overall Test numbers – to stand up.
Still, England remain emphatic underdogs, because Australia bring experience, class, and an intimate knowledge of conditions. But the beauty of this wild, unique build-up is that there is no form guide, and we really have no idea what will happen next.