After a build-up overshadowed by controversies and Covid, Australia and England’s hotly anticipated five-Test Ashes showdown gets under way on Wednesday in Brisbane with Joe Root’s men confident of defying recent history to cause an upset.

Few series between the old rivals have witnessed such troubled preparations, with the tour threatened early on over Australia’s tough Covid-19 quarantine rules.

With that hurdle cleared, the hosts were rocked by a text-message scandal that led to the resignation of skipper Tim Paine and eventual stepping aside from the squad, while English cricket has been engulfed in claims of institutional racism.

Throw in torrential rain that severely derailed both teams’ warm-up games, and it has been memorable for all the wrong reasons before a ball is even bowled.

The poor weather could yet cause more problems. Showers are forecast for the opening Test at Brisbane’s Gabba, where the deck looks set to favour the seamers given the recent deluges.

England haven’t won a Test at the ground since 1986 and have only come out on top there four times – twice in the 1930s, once against the Kerry Packer-weakened 1978-79 Australians and 35 years ago during Ian Botham’s heyday.

But they do have hope after India pulled off an upset three-wicket win at the Gabba in January, snapping Australia’s undefeated red-ball streak in the Queensland capital that stretched back to 1988.

And England have recent history against them, having lost nine of their last 10 Tests in Australia.

“We believe we have got a group of players who can win,” said the 39-year-old James Anderson, England’s leading wicket-taker when they won the Ashes in Australia the last time, back in 2010-11.

England have since been on the end of two series whitewashes in Australia.

Nevertheless, Australia are perhaps favourites to retain the urn, despite the disruption of losing Paine a fortnight ago.

In his place, Pat Cummins will captain his first Test, supported by deputy Steve Smith. Alex Carey makes his Test debut after taking the gloves from Paine as wicketkeeper.

Both teams will lean heavily on ageing warriors. England will already be without Anderson for the first Test and Stuart Broad’s place in the XI is not nailed either, and there will be pressure on the likes of Chris Woakes, Ollie Robinson and Mark Wood.

England are massively boosted by the return of all-rounder Ben Stokes after a finger injury and mental health break.

Former Australia skipper Ricky Ponting said Stokes could be pivotal.

“Their batting looks fragile,” he said. “But with Stokes being in their side now, it’s a completely different-looking team.”

Australia go into the series once more relying heavily on the batting prowess of Smith and David Warner, along with the bowling firepower of Josh Hazlewood, Cummins and spinner Nathan Lyon.

Cummins is a rare thing – a fast-bowling captain – and how he juggles the task will be under intense scrutiny.

The 28-year-old admitted he would lean heavily on Smith, who is back in a leadership role after being fired as captain following the Sandpaper-gate cheating scandal in 2018.

After Brisbane, the series moves to a day-night clash in Adelaide before the traditional Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, then Sydney.

The fifth Test in Perth looks set to be moved because of state border rules, with Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney all keen to play host.

Captains’ corner

Pat Cummins

“I’ve really enjoyed being vice-captain under [Aaron] Finch the last two or three years. I think the environment we created in the World Cup is a blueprint. It’s slightly different, T20s and Test cricket, (and) the demands, but I think the relaxed environment, empowering everyone to do it their own way.

“Langer has been great. He’s certainly still head coach, but I think the environment that he creates not only for the players, but the coaches around him, really empowers them.

“You’ve seen (batting coach) Michael Di Venuto really take charge of the batting, (assistant coach) Andrew McDonald take charge of the bowling – it’s just really good, clear roles for everyone in the team. It’s in some ways taking a step back and let(ting) the players really dictate the environment they want.

“It worked incredibly well over in the World Cup, and he has huge credit to do with that, and hopefully it continues for this summer. He’s been great so far. They’re great lessons we learned over in the World Cup that work, and we’d like to continue that on.”

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Joe Root

“More than anything, it’s really good to just see Ben back involved again in the frame of things and to see him come into the limited game time that we had, and to look as good as he did as well.

“You always know that when he gets into a game he always wants to put his mark on it and put a stamp on it. But yes, I think there will be an element of managing expectations.

“You’ve got to trust his experience and, I suppose, our whole bowling group can work collectively to take those wickets and I’m sure Ben will have a big say in that,” he added.

— via AFP


Australia: The hosts confirmed their line-up for the first Test three days early, recalling Travis Head for the hotly contested No 5 spot while retaining Mitchell Starc in the bowling attack. Head was dropped after the Boxing Day Test against India last year, and captain Cummins said the way he has responded gave him a narrow edge over the veteran Usman Khawaja.

Australia’s confirmed XI: Marcus Harris, David Warner, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Cameron Green, Alex Carey (wk), Pat Cummins (c), Mitch Starc, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood.

England: The task for Joe Root’s side was made harder on the eve of the Ashes when veteran pacer James Anderson – Test cricket’s most prolific fast bowler with 632 wickets – was not named in England’s 12-man match squad for the opening clash at the Gabba. “Jimmy’s not going to play but he is fit. It’s just precautionary,” said Buttler.

England’s 12-member team for first Test: Joe Root (c), Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Jos Buttler (wk), Haseeb Hameed, Jack Leach, Dawid Malan, Ollie Pope, Ollie Robinson, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood.

Recent form and Ashes history

Australian men haven’t played a Test match since January. Their last assignment was a defeat against India in Brisbane at the start of the year.

England, however, have been busy across formats but red-ball cricket has been a mixed bag for them. In Test cricket, they kicked off the year with a 2-0 series win in Sri Lanka followed by a 1-3 series defeat against England, where they took the lead in Chennai. They followed that up with home series defeat against New Zealand and then trailing 1-2 against India in a series that is suspended after four matches. 

Ashes historic count

Series wins
Australia 33
England  32
Drawn 6

Men's Ashes series results since 2000

Season Winner Final result (No of matches)
The Ashes (Australia in England) 2001 Australia 4-1 (5)
The Ashes (England in Australia) 2002/03 Australia 4-1 (5)
The Ashes (Australia in England) 2005 England 2-1 (5)
The Ashes (England in Australia) 2006/07 Australia 5-0 (5)
The Ashes (Australia in England) 2009 England 2-1 (5)
The Ashes (England in Australia) 2010/11 England 3-1 (5)
The Ashes (Australia in England) 2013 England 3-0 (5)
The Ashes (England in Australia) 2013/14 Australia 5-0 (5)
The Ashes (Australia in England) 2015 England 3-2 (5)
The Ashes (England in Australia) 2017/18 Australia 4-0 (5)
The Ashes (Australia in England) 2019 drawn 2-2 (5)

Australia vs England H2H in men's Tests

Team Matches Australia England Draw
Overall 351 146 110 95
In Australia 180 95 57 28
In Australia since 2010 15 10 3 2

Ashes results since 2000 in Australia by venue

Team Matches AUS wins ENG wins Draw
WACA, Perth 5 5 0 0
Adelaide Oval 5 4 1 0
Gabba 5 4 0 1
MCG 5 3 1 1
SCG 5 3 2 0

Here’s a neat visual representation of how the Ashes rivalry has panned out over the years:

Schedule for men’s Ashes Test series:

First Test: December 8-12, The Gabba 

Second Test: December 16-20, Adelaide Oval (day-night)

Third Test: December 26-30, MCG 

Fourth Test: January 5-9, SCG 

Fifth Test: January 14-18 (Venue to be confirmed)

The Ashes will be broadcast on the Sony Sports Network in India.

(With AFP inputs; stats courtesy ESPNcricinfo)