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Australia still Ashes favourites, but lot on the line to begin high-stakes Pat Cummins era

The series will continually be stalked by Covid-19, but the chance to hold the urn aloft on home soil beckons

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
And so it's here. The Pat Cummins era of Australia's Test team. It was expected to arrive at some point next year but begins a few months early after a period of upheaval.
It is a reassuring thought that bat vs ball will become a major talking point in a few days, although something other than runs and wickets is unlikely to be too far away. This series will continually be stalked by Covid-19 and the new variant which has brought uncertainty to Australia's reopening plans. The Perth Test has already become a non-starter.
But, for now, let's focus on the field.
Despite everything that has gone on, Australia remain favourites for the Ashes. England have won once in their last eight series down under while the last two are a combined 9-0 scoreline in favour of Australia. But it does feel like the margins have tightened. Not just because of the captaincy turnover, but the addition of Ben Stokes to England's plans and the disrupted build-up to both sides. Never has a Gabba Test dawned with so much uncertainty over how the players will shape up but Australia should have a slight advantage given some of them have had Sheffield Shield cricket.
It will be a relief to see an Australia men's Test team on the field. The last time that happened was January 19, also at the Gabba, when one of the great home-ground records was brought to a juddering halt by India's famous win. Since then a South Africa tour was postponed due to the pandemic and an Afghanistan Test for political reasons.
Australia have only played nine Tests - and all at home - since the 2019 Ashes. So where do they stand?
The rankings say No.3, marginally ahead of England. For sure they are not a great Test team although it was their own fault through over-rates that they missed the World Test Championship final, but they would still have made it with a victory at either the SCG or Gabba against India.
Their road to the next final is a tough one with their three overseas series on the subcontinent against Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India. Their home contests are this Ashes, then next summer's visits by West Indies and South Africa, if all goes to schedule, and that still feels uncertain on various levels.
They did not pass 400 last season, the first time that has happened in a home summer since 1985-86 and their highest total of 369 was their lowest best since the 1978-79 season. It's worth saying that India did not fill their boots, either, with a top score of 336 and the bowling on both sides was largely excellent, but for Australia on their own patch it was notable.
The batting remains the most questionable area despite the presence of two modern greats in Steven Smith and David Warner and an emerging one in Marnus Labuschagne. They are putting their faith in Marcus Harris to turn a Test average of 23.77 into something far more substantial after some technical work to his game and have gone back to Travis Head at No. 5 ahead of Usman Khawaja.
While nothing is ever certain, Cameron Green has all the attributes for a long Test career (probably higher than No. 6) but he only has four Tests under his belt and there will be a debutant wicketkeeper in Alex Carey at No. 7.
The bowling attack is experienced and highly credentialed with some strong back-up in place despite the recent international retirement of James Pattinson. Captain Cummins was magnificent last season when others started to run out of steam against India and this time he'll be scrutinised as more than a bowler. He has run through brick walls for his previous captains but how he manages himself will be one of the closely-watched aspects of this series.
It will also be interesting to watch how often he takes the new ball. Josh Hazlewood is another outstanding operator and if there is swing to be found Mitchell Starc can be lethal. Starc had a tough 2020-21 season as he continued to play while carrying the burden of his severely ill father who passed away in February. His record at home remains formidable with 161 wickets at 26.93 and in the 2017-18 Ashes he took 22 at 23.54.
There is, though, a debate about how many of the five Tests he (and perhaps Hazlewood) will play and whether Australia will use rotation in a condensed series. In Jhye Richardson, who played two Tests against Sri Lanka in 2018-19 before having his career disrupted by injuries, they have another quick bowler who looks primed should he be needed and there is also the perennial drinks carrier in Michael Neser.
Barring injury, the spin will remain in the hands of the ever-present Nathan Lyon. The last time he missed a home Test was 2011-12 against West Indies at Perth or anywhere was the 2013 Ashes. He has been sat on 399 wickets since January and will hope for a more productive season, but his bunny from 2017-18, Moeen Ali, is not here this time. The contest with another left hander, Stokes, should be absorbing.
Lyon is one of the Australians for who this might be a last home Ashes series - although given his fitness record he could still be going at 38 - but it is unlikely to be Test curtains for anyone in the current squad unless Warner decides his time is done.
It had been viewed as a likely end point - and defining series - for Tim Paine, a chance to hold the urn aloft on home soil, but recent events have changed that. Now it's Cummins hoping for that moment. A beginning, rather than an end.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo