Ashes edginess highlights change of fortunes

Rachael Haynes and Heather Knight ahead of the Women's Ashes Getty Images

At the conclusion of the most recent Women's Ashes, Australia held the urn, were the top-ranked side on the planet and boasted both the ODI and T20 world titles. There were fears voiced that antipodean advantage in the women's game might be getting a fraction systematic.

Fast forward 26 months, the Ashes is the only of those four jewels that the Australians retain. Meanwhile, it is England sitting on top of the world rankings after collecting themselves the 50-over World Cup in their most recent outing. Little wonder they're a happy bunch this time around, or that the hosts are promising to show their teeth.

"I just want our players to get the most out of themselves," newly ordained Australian captain Rachael Haynes said in response to Alyssa Healy's observation that the rivals are all a bit too friendly these days. That the "bitch" (Healy's word) needs bringing back. "Alyssa is one of the only players that can get away with coming out and saying that."

This familiarity is the product of another major shift since their last Ashes contest: a semi-professional T20 circuit with leagues in both countries full of talent from the other. It is a growing pain welcome on the whole as the game enjoys this period of sustained growth.

But despite Healy's efforts, hostile environments typically require the participation of both adversaries for them to be most effective and Heather Knight is "not that interested" in her team signing up to it. "It wouldn't be an Ashes without a little bit of word from the Aussies," she said. "But we just want to let our cricket do the talking."

Knight couldn't resist a little dig herself though, reflecting the recent fortunes: "Obviously that's the route Australia want to go down, they felt they need to do something different to try and unsettle us. But that's a sign of where we are and how successful we've been as a team."

And Haynes response to Knight? "Yeah, I honestly don't mind what they do," she said dismissively. Make no mistake, there's no shortage of that old-fashioned Ashes niggle here.

To a distraction of another kind, the rain did not stop in Brisbane on Saturday, pooling across Allan Border Field. Tireless work will be required by groundstaff to get the game played as scheduled. Curiously though, the ICC Women's World Championship - that these three ODIs form part of - no longer has provision for a reserve day as it did over the previous two-year cycle when the round-robin tournament was in operation.

The ICC decision was taken to enable "greater scheduling flexibility" according to Cricket Australia, but that doesn't compute for England coach Mark Robinson, who can't work out why the change was made. For Knight's part, she acknowledged the frustration of their largely rained-out week to date but stressed it wouldn't be an excuse for underperformance.

"It wasn't quite what we were expecting when we came out to Australia," she said. "But we'll be ready. Most importantly we need to switch on mentally and get over the fact we haven't had practice games. At the end of this series, nobody will remember what your prep was like. We can bleat and feel sorry for ourselves but it won't count for anything."

That any game could be reduced in overs explains why neither side has committed to an XI, but it is likely England will be unchanged from the side that won the World Cup in July. Both teams look set to go in with three spin options, including Knight in that equation.

Australia's batting list looks settled for personnel, with no newcomers since the World Cup, but the loss of Meg Lanning will be felt across every day this series - the world's top-ranked batsman missing due to shoulder surgery. As for whether Haynes will also step into her No. 3 spot, she wouldn't be drawn.

"I really feel like I have the support of the team and everyone is right behind me," she said. "I'm really enjoying my batting at the moment and I don't really feel any added pressure." Her century for New South Wales to open the WNCL season a fortnight ago lends weight to that proposition.

Regardless, it is Ellyse Perry who essentially steps into Lanning's shoes. The allrounder has averaged 79 in ODIs over the last four years, usually coming in at the fall of the second wicket. That's on top of her duties as Australia's strike bowler. But as her Player of the Series gongs in the two previous Ashes scraps show, she isn't for wilting on the big stage.

The England camp is mindful that this blockbuster series comes at the end of a taxing home summer, but Knight believes this helps their chances to cap off a memorable rise to the top. "There's no trouble getting up for this series and what a massive series it's going to be," she said. "If we can be successful here, 2017 can be a hell of a year." That it would be.