Matches (24)
IPL (3)
Pakistan vs New Zealand (2)
County DIV1 (5)
County DIV2 (4)
WI 4-Day (2)
ACC Premier Cup (2)
WT20 WC QLF (Warm-up) (5)
PAK v WI [W] (1)

England braced for return to bushtucker trials as Ashes with a difference loom

Time for Joe Root's men to set aside their baggage and take on the old enemy once again

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
Until Covid struck, it was a long-standing tradition for British TV executives to dispatch a team of personalities down to Australia for the festive build-up, to perform daft tasks for the delectation of their armchair viewers, under the permanent gaze of the all-seeing TV eye.
It soon transpired that English cricketers - well used to the strange combination of terror and boredom on their more conventional visits to Australia - were unusually well disposed to the dynamics of I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. In its second season, way back in 2003, Phil Tufnell romped to victory through a combination of sardonic wit, enthusiastic bug-eating, and an ability to sleep his troubles away.
Nearly 20 years later, it is as if England's cricketers have been transported en masse back to that Queensland rainforest, given the extraordinarily soggy build-up to Wednesday's first Test at the Gabba. But the conditions for this contest - for Joe Root's men as well as their equally disorientated opponents - may have rather more in common with the plot from The Hunger Games or The Running Man: a dystopian battle of wills in which one team or other is liable to meet a gruesome end.
There's simply no precedent for the contest that is about to unfold. Teams are well used to going into Test series with little or no preparation - for several home summers until the ECB finally deigned to grant a window for the IPL, the Lord's Test in May was renowned for being a crap-shoot for visiting teams. But for both host and visitor to emerge blinking into the Gabba sunlight, desperately trying to orientate themselves before the other swings in with the first of innumerable haymakers, is both extraordinary and, for we bloodthirsty onlookers, a savagely compelling prospect.
And yet, far from feeling sorry for the men in the middle of these invidious circumstances, you can't help but presume that - for both teams but most especially England - there's actually no place that they would rather be right now. The build-ups for both squads have been plagued by off-field mayhem, over and above the inconvenience of quarantine and the weather, but here's a chance to live in the moment, and breathe in the heat of battle. Who has time for the sort of worries dogging English cricket right now, when Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood are whistling an unfamiliar red orb around your lugholes?
For Root in particular, the Ashes is his release. This should be his moment - he's in the form of his life (or, at least, he was the last time he held a bat in anger four months ago) and on a personal level, he ought to have had nothing on his mind but his bid for redemption, after a last tilt at glory Down Under ended in a bout of heat exhaustion at Sydney and a long, miserable dreamless sleep as Australia paraded the Ashes on that infamous, antagonistic, four-fingers-and-clenched-fist podium.
Events, however, have conspired against any sort of zen-like focus. Twice so far, Root's been required to address the shocking revelations at Yorkshire; twice his responses have been evasive and insubstantial, leading Azeem Rafiq - English cricket's man of the moment - to tweet his disappointment at his former team-mate's failure to corroborate claims of racial mistreatment at the club.
Now Root's focus is sure to have been rocked once more by Friday afternoon's dramas, with the purging of 16 members of Yorkshire's back-room staff - many friends and confidantes doubtless among them - and talk of mass exoduses of the playing staff in solidarity.
To give Root the leeway that Rafiq himself admitted earlier in the saga he was due, to address these claims head-on - right here, right now - would have done him, his Ashes mission and the hope of a conciliatory end to the Yorkshire crisis no good at all. No doubt the time will come in the new year when Root sits down with the likes of Rafiq and Gary Ballance, his former housemate, to thrash out their differences and find the common ground. But, right now, he is 10,000 miles away on the wrong side of the world, as far away as it is possible to be from the sort of face-to-face explanations that a situation of this gravity demands.
For the time being, however, Root has a team to pick, a toss to win, a first over to negotiate, an unusually friendless Ashes crowd to tame. And a 2021 Test haul of 1455 runs at 66 to fall back on as proof that - in spite of all evidence to the contrary - this is the time of his life, and this is the stage that will define him.
From a standing start, Stokes is no less prepared than anyone else - and if that means that the Gabba Test becomes a battle of mentality giants, he has an ability to tower over opponents that few contemporaries can match
And what of Ben Stokes, another man well used to life in the goldfish bowl, after his ascension in 2019 to bona fide superstar status? He too has a pile of baggage to bring into this first contest - not least, his residual guilt at not being there for Root four years ago, when the fall-out from his Bristol brawl left his career, and briefly his freedom, in limbo.
Until October, Stokes was resigned to missing his second Ashes tour in succession - a potentially crushing void in the record of a man who knows, like Root, that he's now marching into his prime years as an athlete. But then came that crucial second finger operation, and the removal of the scar tissue that had been causing him such agony after the original break had healed. In an instant the pain evaporated, and with it the mental toil that led to him sitting out the prime months of the English summer.
And now, here he is, arguably the single biggest beneficiary of the rain-wrecked Ashes build-up, in that the preparation he might have obtained from seven days of clear weather is nothing compared to the setbacks it will have caused the men whom he'll be coming up against this week. From a standing start, he's no less prepared than anyone else in the contest. And if that means that the Gabba Test becomes a battle of mentality giants, then - as Stokes demonstrated in that epic summer of 2019 - when his mind clicks into gear, he has an ability to tower over opponents that few of his contemporaries can match.
And how about a penny for Ollie Robinson's thoughts too. Six months ago, he thought his career was crushed, as the revolting details of his historic tweets came to light on the opening day of his debut Test at Lord's. Leaving aside the rightful condemnation he received, it required untold mental fortitude for Robinson to plough on through that contest, picking up a haul of seven wickets and a gutsy 42, when lesser individuals might have allowed the ground to swallow them up there and then.
He rose to the challenge against India too, and comes into the Gabba swinging from the hip about Australia's "horrendous" attempts at sledging, and his determination to boss his battles from the outset. It might all prove to be talk - most of this Ashes build-up, by definition, has been talk. But then, when you've felt that sinkhole forming beneath your feet, and not only survived, but thrived, you're probably entitled to believe that no circumstances can ever again prove so daunting.
James Anderson and Stuart Broad might have appreciated a bit more actual game-time in this build-up, given that time is forever marching on and their dodgy calves are unlikely to get more robust with age. But if you had to pick a pair of operators to send into an Ashes series with next to no prep, then two men who are embarking on their fifth and fourth tours respectively would doubtless fit the bill. Much has been made of the addition of Troy Cooley to England's coaching ranks, to give the lowdown on his former Australian charges. But when it comes to imparting the vital intel about lines and lengths for the Gabba, there's not a lot that these two won't have already gleaned - even if, it should be acknowledged, it's been more than a decade since either man played any part in a Test victory Down Under.
For Australia's line-up is replete with similarly hungry combatants, albeit they've not been seen in Test action for 11 months and counting. If the circumstances of Cummins' accession to the captaincy veer towards the sub-optimal, then the optics of the clean-cut, thinking-man's fast bowler could hardly be more tantalising, while Steven Smith's return to an official leadership role, three years after Sandpapergate, is barely less intriguing. He comes into this campaign with the small matter of 1461 runs at 121.75 in his last nine Ashes Tests - about the only batting statistic that can make Root's current form feel inadequate.
There's David Warner too, who has already proven once this winter how his mind can triumph over matter in scorching Australia to a preconception-busting T20 World Cup triumph. Who cares that he made 95 runs in ten innings in 2019, and fell to Broad on seven of those occasions, when he's got 18 of his 24 Test centuries in Australia and nine wins and a draw in ten Ashes contests on home soil.
Then there's Nathan Lyon, stuck on 399 Test wickets for the best part of a year, and perhaps still quietly stewing about that extraordinary act of "champing" after India's win at the Gabba last year, when Ajinkya Rahane presented him with a 100th Test signed shirt at the precise moment he would rather have been anywhere else in the world. He might be eager to move on from that fumble too...
All of these and more will be packaging up their memories - good, bad and distinctly ugly - and launching them into the maelstrom come Wednesday morning. The sport has been through the mill for all manner of reasons in recent months. But it would not be a newsworthy endeavour were it not for occasions such as these. The Ashes are back, but not as we know them. Settle into that armchair, and load up on the bushtucker. Because who knows where this one is headed.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket