Can't bat, can't bowl, can't field
Once again, England have begun an Ashes tour in shambolic fashion, with a heavy defeat against the Prime Minister's XI followed by Marcus Trescothick's sudden departure. It might be an omen, but equally it might not be. Here, Cricinfo examines 11 of the most eventful beginnings to an Ashes campaign
Few sides have left England with such a defined and pre-determined plan of attack ... and none have arrived in Australia and made such an immediate impression. Soon after landing, Douglas Jardine was asked to provide team news early to help the newspapers in Sydney and Melbourne meet their deadlines. "Do you think we've come all this way to provide bloody scoops for your papers," was his response. And that was one of the highs in the relationship between the England captain and an entire continent. England made steady progress in the tour matches, and an out-of-sorts Don Bradman scored 103 runs in six outings ahead of the opening Test (which he missed anyhow because of a row with the board). And as for Bodyline ... that didn't rear its ugly head until the real contest started.
1958-59 Australia 4 England 0
"They stand every chance of bringing the Ashes back next March," predicted The Times as the team embarked from Tilbury. How wrong they were. England travelled not so much hoping to win but expecting to - after all, they had not lost a series home or away for eight years and the squad under Peter May was widely considered to be one of the strongest ever to venture overseas. But there were problems - Johnny Wardle was left out after he was sacked by Yorkshire and Jim Laker dropped out before opting back in. Willie Watson then injured himself on the ship taking the side to Australia and Raman Subba Row fractured his wrist just before the first Test. Even so, the six warm-up matches contained no major scares and no defeats, although New South Wales did enforce the follow-on. By the end of a one-sided series, it was clear that several of England's stalwarts were past their peak.
1970-71 Australia 0 England 2
What ended as a triumph for England started as a shambles, with many unhappy that Ray Illingworth had been chosen as captain ahead of Colin Cowdrey. Even Don Bradman, who had never seen Illingworth lead a side, joined his critics. Worse was to come. England's plan had been based on the speed of John Snow and Alan Ward, who were appreciably quicker than any other bowler on either team, but Ward broke down and returned home before the first Test. The second warm-up match ended in a six-wicket defeat to Victoria after which John Woodcock in The Times chuntered that only two or three players turned up to a voluntary net session the following day. "Strangely the many difficulties which Illingworth had to overcome could be held as being partly responsible for the team"s success," Wisden concluded.
1974-75 Australia 4 England 1
England arrived in Australia with an ageing side and with little idea of the ordeal by pace that awaited them. Dennis Lillee, recovering from a serious back injury, was written off while Jeff Thomson was so unknown that most of the tourists thought that Victoria's Froggy Thompson had been picked for Brisbane. They had encountered Thomson in one tour match before the first Test but he had not impressed - they were not to know that he had bowled at three-quarter pace under orders from Greg Chappell who had instructed him to "just **** around". In the four matches which preceded the Brisbane Test, England won two and had the better of draws in the others. It turned out to be a false dawn as one of the most one-sided Ashes series of all time followed.
1978-79 Australia 1 England 5
This series was entirely overshadowed by the launch of World Series Cricket, and the preliminary matches were almost forgotten as the local media concentrated on working out who was left for the Australian selectors to dredge up. The weakness of Australia was compounded by the professionalism of Mike Brearley's England. "Not a detail was left to chance," Wisden noted. "The day began with Barrington phoning every player with precise instructions - his expected dress, time of departure to the ground, and so on. Before play or net sessions Bernard Thomas organised PT and limbering-up exercises. Never has a touring party been so devoted to physical fitness and pre-breakfast runs in neighbouring parks." Even so, the tour opener against South Australia was lost, with Rodney Hogg showing his intent with six wickets (he went on to take 41 in the series). Thereafter, little else went wrong.
1982-83 Australia 2 England 1
Though a full season had passed since the announcement of England's rebel tour to South Africa, the repercussions were only felt once the squad had arrived in Australia to defend the Ashes. In particular, the absence of Graham Gooch at the top of the order was keenly felt. Three men attempted to fill his shoes - Geoff Cook, Chris Tavare and Graeme Fowler - but they were all in such desperate form in the warm-up matches (not a half-century between them) that it was seemingly a contest for the right to be omitted. Fowler, with 47 runs in six innings, eventually came out at the bottom of the heap. Wisden, in a sign of the times, commented that "the five Test matches had to be finished by January 7. This allowed little time for acclimatisation and none for up-country matches." Welcome to the modern Ashes tour.
1986-87 Australia 1 England 2
"There are only three things wrong with the English team - they can't bat, they can't bowl, and they can't field." Martin Johnson's famous assessment of England 's early-tour travails was no exaggeration. A thumping defeat by Queensland was followed by a near-repeat against Western Australia, and the knives were being sharpened for a side that had lost eight of its last 11 Tests, including three series in a row against West Indies, India and New Zealand. But it remained a cheerful squad in spite of the bad press, and with larger-than-life characters such as Ian Botham, David Gower, Allan Lamb and Phil Edmonds on board, there was no brooding permitted. England duly rallied to rout Australia in the first Test at Brisbane, and by the time England had retained the Ashes with a game to spare, Johnson had revised his original verdict: "Right line, wrong team".
1990-91 Australia 3 England 0
This was arguably England's most dismal Ashes campaign of the lot - and that is saying something - and it was derailed by an incident in the very first week. When the captain, Graham Gooch, gashed the fourth finger of his right hand during practice (while attempting a caught-and-bowled off Robin Smith) it set in place a catastrophic chain of events which culminated in an emergency and career-saving operation - the cut, inadequately treated with butterfly strips - had turned septic and the poison had spread all the way into the palm of Gooch's hand. He was ruled out for a month, in which time England lost humiliatingly to South Australia at Adelaide and saved face against an Australian XI at Hobart only through twin centuries from Allan Lamb. By the time he returned, ahead of schedule, the first Test had been lost amid some spectacular batting collapses, and the one-day series was headed the same way.
1994-95 Australia 3 England 1
Selection issues were the hot topic at the start of yet another winter of English discontent. Angus Fraser, to the astonishment of all, was omitted from the squad in favour of two unproven performers - the one-cap wonder Joey Benjamin and "the rat who joined the sinking sink, Martin McCague. And Mike Atherton, England's young captain, found his style cramped by the presence, uniquely, of both his predecessors on Ashes tours, Graham Gooch (1990-91) and Mike Gatting (1986-87). Gooch started strongly with a pair of centuries in the warm-up games, and McCague routed South Australia with 5 for 31 at Adelaide . But Devon Malcolm, whose stock had never been higher after his nine-wicket annihilation of South Africa in England's previous Test, contracted chicken-pox on the eve of the first Test and once again the wheels came off the tour. Phil DeFreitas's first delivery of the series - a revolting long-hop that Michael Slater smeared through the covers - lives on in infamy.
1998-99 Australia 3 England 1
England's final Ashes campaign of the 20th Century began satisfyingly enough, with a one-run victory over an ACB Chairman's XI featuring the 49-year-old Dennis Lillee (six overs for 22), and by the time of the first Test, the team was unbeaten in four matches. Graham Thorpe and Mark Ramprakash's record partnership of 377 against South Australia provided the undoubted highlight, while Robert Croft and Alan Mullally further boosted morale by sneaking a thrilling one-wicket victory against Queensland . But the storm clouds were mounting nonetheless, with Michael Atherton's degenerative back condition causing particular concern. He proved to be a sitting duck for his nemesis, Glenn McGrath, falling to him four times in four Tests, including his first Test pair at Melbourne. It was an apt commentary on another one-sided showing.
2002-03 Australia 4 England 1
England were going to have to be at the top of their game to compete with an Australian side that many observers believed had become one of the greatest units of all time. Instead they arrived in utter disarray. Darren Gough, the only bowler to have taken a Test wicket in Australia, struggled throughout with a chronic knee condition and flew home ahead of the first Test. Andrew Flintoff was barely able to walk after a hernia operation and didn't play a game. Marcus Trescothick had a dicky shoulder, Simon Jones had a damaged rib, Michael Vaughan wore an ice-pack on his injured knee (although he showed no ill-effects when the real action began). But even those who were injury-free became laughing stocks, especially Steve Harmison, who winged down eight wides in an over at Lilac Hill, and the captain, Nasser Hussain, whose decision to field first at Brisbane was interpreted as an article of surrender.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo, Martin Williamson is managing editor