There are always nerves and excitement on the eve of an Ashes series, but some actual cricket being played might be sweet relief to Australia and England and their fans alike after a bizarre build-up. There have been both literal clouds and thunderstorms that have hampered both teams’ preparation in Queensland following the T20 World Cup, while the figurative clouds of racism in English cricket and Tim Paine’s resignation have loomed over both teams in the lead-up.
In pure cricketing terms, on paper at least this isn’t quite the mismatch it has been touted in some quarters. These are two middling teams, ranked third and fourth on the ICC Test rankings, but they diverge in many ways. One team barely plays while the other might be playing too much. Australia have played one four-Test series since January 2020, which they lost at home against an understrength India, and have not played overseas since the 2019 Ashes. England, meanwhile, are about to play in their fifth series of the calendar year having played six Tests in Sri Lanka and India and six at home against New Zealand and India again, but have won just four of those 12.
For Australia, it is the beginning of a new era with Pat Cummins to lead his nation for the first-time, becoming the first Australian fast-bowling captain since 1956, while there will be a new man behind the stumps in Alex Carey. But it is the same formidable attack that won 4-0 four years ago, while David Warner, Marnus Labuschagne, and Steven Smith all loom large in home conditions.
For England, despite some of the youth in their squad, it is being seen as a legacy series for both Joe Root‘s captaincy as well as their two most prolific fast bowlers in James Anderson and Stuart Broad, on their fifth and fourth tours of Australia respectively. Root lands down under in the form of his life, while the fitness of Anderson and Broad remains a question. Ben Stokes is here but has not played a competitive game of cricket since July and has not played a red-ball game since his last Test in March. However, his class and competitiveness can never be questioned.
For all the unknowns, the cold reality for England is they have lost nine of their last 10 Tests in Australia without a victory. In England’s last 20 Tests in Australia, there has been one constant in the only games they haven’t lost. Alastair Cook scored 67, 235 not out, 148, 82, 189, and 244 not out in the three wins and two draws interspersed among 15 defeats. If Root is to cement his legacy as England captain it will take something equally monumental.
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In the spotlight
England openers have held the key to Ashes success in Australia with Geoff Boycott, Chris Broad and Cook all having extraordinary series to help England win in 1970-71, 1986-87 and 2010-11 respectively while Michael Vaughan carved out three centuries in 2002-03 to help England avoid a series whitewash. Over to you then, Rory Burns. The left-hander proved his mettle against Australia in the 2019 Ashes series with a century at Edgbaston and two other half-centuries in the face of Australia’s pace onslaught. He started last home summer in even better touch against New Zealand but experienced diminishing returns against India, although a 153-ball 61 at Headingley helped England to a series-levelling win. Burns needs more than one hundred in this series if England are to triumph. As Vaughan proved though, even three might not be enough.
The same can be said of David Warner. It is hard to get a gauge on where he currently is as a Test batter because he has played just two Tests in 23 months and was injured for both. Much has been made of the search for his partner, but Warner has had some doubters himself. The T20 World Cup proved that when he scores runs in any format Australia wins trophies. He has the capabilities of ripping the series from England’s hands in two hours on the first morning at the Gabba. But the ghosts of 2019 and Broad still linger in the mind. If both Broad and Anderson don’t play in Brisbane, that will certainly give Warner a boost. If he can give Labuschagne and Smith a platform, and Australia’s bowlers a total to defend, then the home side will be very hard to stop.
Australia have named their XI without much hesitation. Marcus Harris was locked into partner Warner weeks ago while the debate around Mitchell Starc and Jhye Richardson was far more vociferous in public than it was at the selection table with Starc never in any real doubt to miss out. Alex Carey was eventually named as Paine’s replacement after some deliberation about Josh Inglis. The final decision was between Travis Head and Usman Khawaja to bat in the middle-order. The selectors sided with the younger man in spite of Khawaja’s experience and far superior record at the Gabba.
Australia 1 David Warner, 2 Marcus Harris, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steven Smith, 5 Travis Head, 6 Cameron Green, 7 Alex Carey (wk), 8 Pat Cummins (capt), 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Josh Hazlewood
James Anderson will be rested by England in preparation for Adelaide. Stokes’ return gives England a lot more flexibility and shores up the top five. There was debate about the No. 6 slot but Ollie Pope will play his first Test in Australia instead of the experienced Jonny Bairstow. Stokes also allows for a more balanced attack. England look set to go with the pace of Mark Wood and the seam and skill of Chris Woakes and Ollie Robinson. The final call may come down to pitch and conditions. There is rain forecast and England may risk playing four quicks by playing Broad instead of Leach.
England 1 Rory Burns, 2 Haseeb Hameed, 3 Dawid Malan, 4 Joe Root (capt), 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Ollie Pope, 7 Jos Buttler (wk), 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Ollie Robinson, 10 Mark Wood, 11 Stuart Broad/Jack Leach
Pitch and conditions
It has rained in Queensland for what has felt like a month. There has been some respite in the last week but showers and a possible thunderstorms are forecast for the first two days. The pitch had a solid covering of live green grass on it a day out from the match, but Cummins believed it looked like a normal Gabba surface.
Stats and trivia
England have not won in Brisbane since 1986-87. They drew famously in 2010-11 after being behind in the game but the Gabba-ttoir is no longer the impenetrable fortress it once was for visiting teams after India finally broke the 32-year 29-match drought in January.
Nathan Lyon has sat poised on 399 Test wickets for nearly 11 months. His first wicket will see him become just the third Australian behind Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath to take 400 Test wickets and he would become 17th Test bowler overall to reach the milestone and just the seventh spinner.
There is one glaring hole in Root’s imposing Test record and that is he has not scored a Test century in Australia. In 17 Test innings, he averages 38.00 and has passed 50 six times but has never reached three figures, with a highest score of 87. Australia and New Zealand are the only nations where he has played 10 Test innings or more and does not average 50 plus.
Smith’s last two Ashes series have been extraordinary. In 14 innings he has made 1461 runs at 121.75 with six centuries, two double-centuries and five half-centuries.
Carey joins a trio of Australians in making his Test debut after captaining Australia’s ODI team after Aaron Finch and chairman of selectors George Bailey. He has played 83 internationals for Australia already having served an apprenticeship similar to Adam Gilchrist who played 76 ODIs before his Test debut.
“The conditions are different to what we get at home, at this venue in particular, with the extra bounce but we’ve prepared the best we can for that. As well as the emotions that surround the first morning of a Test match, if we manage that well we should give a really good account of ourselves.”
Joe Root says managing conditions and emotions at the Gabba will be key
“I think if you look back to the 2017-18 Ashes here in Australia, our batters were incredibly ruthless getting 500-600 runs. I think at the WACA we got close to 700 runs, [we were] incredibly relentless with the bat. So that’s something we’ve spoken about. So it’s a big focus for our batting group this summer. “
Pat Cummins says Australia’s batters want to go big after failing to make 400 last summer against India.