Sport gets the juices flowing – and none more so than a mouth-watering Ashes series to savour. We have five gripping Test matches to look forward to as two of cricket’s most passionate nations do battle once again.
The excitement of the T20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates may have now passed, but raise the intensity and pressure levels another few notches as England and Australia battle it out for the prized Ashes Urn. If you haven’t already, then stick Wednesday 8th December in your diary. The opening Test match of the series at the Brisbane Cricket Ground. It’s an occasion which has arguably been etched in the players’ minds in particular for the last two years.
Preparing for an Ashes is long in the planning and, for those lucky souls that avoid injury before a ball is bowled, it’s a chance to shine on, arguably, the greatest stage of them all. And how lucky are we that the Ashes is actually going ahead?
The five-match series has been the subject of tense negotiations over off-field living conditions and the quarantine arrangements in place for players and their families because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.Thankfully, after many rumblings and tough decisions, a breakthrough was made between the England and Wales Cricket Broad and Cricket Australia, with England’s gruelling two-month tour eventually given the green light. That meant England coach Chris Silverwood was allowed to select an 18-man squad for the tour, while today Australia named a 15-man squad for the first two Tests.
After Brisbane’s curtain-raiser it’s off to the Adelaide Oval for the day-night Test, followed by the iconic Boxing Day Test match, which is played at the legendary Melbourne Cricket Ground. Moving into the New Year, the fourth Test is at the Sydney Cricket Ground and then, and perhaps crucially, the two nations clash at the Optus Stadium in Perth for the final and firth Test match of what will surely be a nerve-jangling series.
After the Ashes, England fly to the Caribbean to face the West Indies in five T20 matches.
Although, that run of fixtures if firmly on the back-burner as England prepare to take on their arch-enemy and, if they can produce the good when it matters, we could be celebrating the Urn returning to British shores for the first time since 2015 when Alistair Cook’s triumphant side won the breathtaking five-match series 3-2.
Current England captain Joe Root will remember that series in England with immense pride, especially for the 460 runs he scored that won him the Compton-Miller medal in helping his country achieve sweet success. In fact England had the Ashes wrapped up with a Test match to spare as they made up for an embarrassing 5-0 whitewash two years earlier Down Under.
In all there have been 71 Ashes series: Australia have won 33, England 32 and six series have been drawn. England would no doubt love to level those wins having not won an Ashes series for six years.
A 4-1 loss in 2017 was hard to swallow, although the last Ashes series in 2019 was drawn.
But as holders, Australia only needed to draw the series to retain the Urn. Unfortunately for England, the stats don’t make pretty reading when it comes to winning Ashes Tests in Australia. They have won just 56 of the 167 Tests they have competed in Down Under, a paltry 33.5% win percentage, compared to the 86 Tests the Aussies have won at much more respectable 51.5% average. But stats rarely tell the whole story and England head into this series in a confident mood despite the ongoing Yorkshire racism scandal having fractured the UK game.
In Root they have a hugely-driven lead who has firmly established himself as one of the best batsman in the world. And England hope the return of talisman Ben Stokes will reap dividends. The all-rounder took an indefinite break from the game in July to focus on his mental wellbeing. Stokes originally withdrew from England's squad for the five-Test series against India in August to rest his left index finger, which he broke while playing for Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League in April. He also had a second operation on a finger-injury – and Root admitted he was “absolutely thrilled” his vice-captain is in a place where he can enjoy cricket again.
"We all know what Ben's capable of and it is a huge boost for us a squad,” revealed Root.
"He is a massive asset in many respects, but it’s still managing that expectation because he has been out of the game for a long time with a serious injury.”
Stokes topped the runs charts in the 2019 Ashes series with 441 runs at an impressive average of 55.11, which including his heroic – and now legendary – unbeaten century which masterminded England’s third Test win at Headingley, Yorkshire. And it’s not just with the bat with which England have firepower, in bowlers James Anderson and Stuart Broad, Root has two of the best pacemen in the world at his disposal.
Anderson, of course, might have dropped a few yards in gas and Broad, meanwhile, might also be in the final phase of his fine international career. But the proven pair make a fearsome partnership which the Aussies will be wary of. Added to the raw pace that Mark Wood and Ollie Robinson bring to the table, the swing of Chris Woakes, and the spin of Jack Leach and Dom Bess, the tourists have an attack which has the ability to be successful.
Meanwhile, Australia are engulfed in a real crisis after captain Tim Paine was forced to step down as skipper over a historical investigation into sexual texts to a female colleague.
An emotional Paine broke down crying at a press conference this week to announce his shock departure relating to a lewd text messages he sent to a Cricket Tasmania co-worker in 2017.
Those texts led to a misconduct investigation after the co-worker made allegations against him the following year. And so now the Aussies, amazingly, don't have a skipper for the Ashes. Will they reappoint former skipper Steve Smith, himself shamed in the 'Sandpapergate' scandal, or will they go in a completely fresh direction? One thing's for sure, the latest scandal is just what they didn't want on the eve of such an important competition.
Australia have also surprised many by recalling batter Usman Khawaja, who has not played Test cricket since August 2019. The added shock to that announcement is that Mitchell Marsh, whose match-winning innings secured Australia the T20 World Cup crown last Sunday, hasn’t even made the squad.That means left-handers Khawaja and Travis Head are likely to contest each other for a spot in the middle order.
Fast bowler Jhye Richardson is a name many English fans will arguably not have heard of, given the chance to shine. And the same could be said for leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson and seamer Michael Neser, who are both set to be handed their Test debuts. No pressure!
The wicketkeeper-batter Matthew Wade is a notable omission, while opener batsman Will Pucovski has missed out as he continues to recover from ongoing concussion problems.
"This group is well balanced to ensure we are prepared for the many challenges of an Ashes series,” offered George Bailey, Cricket Australia’s national selection panel chair.
“It has a mix of experienced, proven performers and emerging, developing talent.”
Only time will tell who will come out on top, but be rest-assured this series (as Aussie slang fittingly describes) is set to be a ‘little ripper!’
England squad: Joe Root (capt), James Anderson, Jonny Bairstow, Dom Bess, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler (wk), Zak Crawley, Haseeb Hameed, Dan Lawrence, Jack Leach, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ollie Pope, Ollie Robinson, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood.
Australia squad: Pat Cummins, Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Michael Neser, Jhye Richardson, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, Steve Smith, David Warner. TBC: Captain and wicketkeeper.
8-12 Dec: 1st Test, Brisbane (00:00 GMT)
16-20 Dec: 2nd Test, Adelaide (d/n) (04:00 GMT)
26-30 Dec: 3rd Test, Melbourne (23:30 GMT, 25-29 Dec)
5-9 Jan: 4th Test, Sydney (23:30 GMT, 4-8 Jan)
14-18 Jan: 5th Test, Perth (02:30 GMT)