The biggest and oldest rivalry in world cricket resumes on Wednesday when Australia and England do battle in the first Ashes Test of the summer at the Gabba.
In all, five Tests spread right across the country over the span of six weeks will determine who will capture the sport’s most famous trophy – the little urn.
Given the tight border restrictions that Western Australia still has in place, plenty of conjecture surrounds the staging of the fifth and final Test now that Perth has been officially removed from the list, with Hobart and Canberra mooted as possible alternate destinations. A second match for either the MCG or SCG has been widely speculated.
The Aussies head into the 72nd Ashes series with their noses slightly in front on the overall ledger 33-32-6.
As the holders of the trophy, following the first drawn series between the two countries in 47 years in 2019 in England, Australia are aiming to emerge from an Ashes series with the urn in their keeping for the third time in a row — something they haven’t done since their last – and greatest – stretch of dominance over the old enemy which included eight consecutive series victories from 1989-2003.
But the hosts’ preparation for the upcoming series has been tumultuous to say the least with Tim Paine announcing his resignation as captain and subsequent walking away from the game, after a “sexting” exchange with a Cricket Tasmania employee from four years ago was made public.
For the second time in a row, the national captain’s tenure ended in controversy, following Steve Smith’s stripping of the role as a result of Sandpapergate back in 2018.
Time heals all wounds though, it seems, with Smith named vice-captain to Paine’s successor, Pat Cummins.
It’s a very unusual move for a fast bowler to be made Australian Test skipper and hasn’t happened since Ray Lindwall did so against India in Mumbai in 1956.
Aggression has been a big reason behind Cummins’ rise to one of the best bowlers in the world, so it will be interesting to see if he attempts to rein that in now that he has the country’s reputation to uphold. If he does, it would surely be to the detriment of his team.
As leg-spinning great Shane Warne said last week:
“We want Pat Cummins to be Pat Cummins.”
Paine’s abrupt departure from the team not only means Australia has a new a captain, but a new wicketkeeper as well with Alex Carey set to don the gloves for the first time at Test level after an already-impressive white-ball international career.
Not only is Carey competent behind the stumps, but with 2,466 first-class runs at 34.73, including five tons and 13 fifties, he is proven with bat in hand as well.
One other change has been made to the Australian side that lost to India at the Gabba in January, with Matthew Wade not named in the current squad, and Travis Head returning to number five in the batting order ahead of Usman Khawaja.
As always, much of Australia’s fortunes will depend on their batting “big three” of David Warner, Marnus Labuschagne and Smith as well as their bowling line-up of Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Nathan Lyon and Mitchell Starc.
Starc’s spot in the team has come under scrutiny due to poor from, but he has kept fellow quick Jhye Richardson at bay — for now.
England's team have their share of star power, too, namely captain Joe Root.
Root has been head and shoulders above his batting contemporaries for the calendar year, amassing a whopping 1,455 runs at 66.13, with six centuries, a fifty and a high score of 228 to his credit. The number four is going to have a huge say on proceedings at the Gabba and indeed the series.
The Cummins versus Root, captain versus captain battle promises to be one of the most tantalising aspects of the season.
And then, of course, there’s the return of brilliant all-rounder Ben Stokes who brings serious X-factor to the England line-up and no doubt is still giving nightmares to his opponents as a result of his heroics at Headingley in 2019.
In the bowling ranks, the visitors were still reliant on evergreen veteran pace bowlers James Anderson (39) and Stuart Broad (35) who have 1,156 Test wickets between them. Broad’s ownership of Warner in the last Ashes series alone would’ve been enough to book his ticket Down Under, but Australian conditions are different so he’ll have a challenge ahead to maintain the mental edge over the Aussie opener. Anderson, however, has been ruled out of the first Test with a calf strain.
Ollie Robinson could be a bolter for the visitors this summer, having made a superb start to his Test career this year with 28 scalps at 19.60 and a couple of five-wicket hauls.
It’s been a long time between drinks for Australia in the Test arena, with their last red-ball series finishing all the way back in January. Conversely, England have been very active in the longest form of the game, having played 11 Test matches since Australia’s last Test, albeit for just three wins.
And in their last Test outing, the Aussies lost their first Test at the Gabba in 33 years with India finally breaching the fortress after the hosts went 30 matches unbeaten there, including 24 wins.
It would be staggering if Australia ended up losing back-to-back Tests in Brisbane and they certainly have a lot to atone for following not only that famous loss to India, but also losing a home series to them last summer despite the Indians being severely depleted by injury.
Australian XI: David Warner, Marcus Harris, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith (vc), Travis Head, Cameron Green, Alex Carey (wk), Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins (c), Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood.
England squad: Joe Root (c), Jos Buttler (vc, wk), Jonny Bairstow, Dom Bess, Stuart Broad, Rory Burns, Zak Crawley, Haseeb Hameed, Dan Lawrence, Jack Leach, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ollie Pope, Ollie Robinson, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood.
Ronny’s first Test tip: Australia.
Ronny’s series tip: Australia 3-1.
Ronny Lerner has been a sports and music journalist/editor since 2006. Follow Ronny on Twitter @RonnyLerner.
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