Women's Ashes: Tightrope walk for teams with 'scattered' preparations leaving them undercooked
Getting the show on the road itself will count as an achievement considering the Covid-affected build-up to the marquee series
Covid. Schedule changes. Dodgy nets. Postponed matches. Injuries. Fear of missing the World Cup. To say the preparations for Australia and England ahead of the women's Ashes have had their challenges would be an understatement.
However, the squads have (mostly) made it to Adelaide to begin the multi-format series, which in itself is no mean feat. The men's Ashes had to navigate Covid from the second Test onwards - while England's support staff was severely depleted, Travis Head finished as the only player impacted - but the women's series feels as though it will be even more of a tightrope walk because of the need to travel to New Zealand as soon as it finishes.
"We'll endure what we have to," Australia coach Matthew Mott said. "We know we are in for a tough three months but players and staff are really dedicated and see this as really important opportunity for women's cricket worldwide to get this series up and through the World Cup."
"It's not ideal. But every sporting team in the world would say that at the moment and it's certainly no excuse. This is the moment where we click into cricket mode"Matthew Mott on the team's preparations
There have already been cases in both camps. One member of England support staff tested positive in Canberra, while Katie Mack and Molly Strano from the Australia A squad will miss the T20s against England A. Ellyse Perry's arrival was delayed but she will be available for the T20Is - whether she is selected is one of the fascinating early storylines.
Pre-series plans have largely been thrown away after the rejigging of the schedule, to start with the T20Is instead of the one-off Test. Mindsets have had to switch from the longest to the shortest format, although it's a game the players are very familiar with. England were twice beaten by Australia's A side as batters tried to hit their way into form and rhythm.
"I wouldn't say we've started that well, to be totally honest," England coach Lisa Keightley said. "We're trying to get up to speed as best we can. I'm confident when we get to that first T20 they'll be in a better place than what they are now."
Tahlia McGrath all-round excellence trumps Wyatt 70 as Australia take Ashes opening honours
Heather Knight aims to 'punch first' against aggressive Australia
Gains on and off the field for Alana King
Knight vows to 'fight fire with fire' during Women's Ashes
Australia ready for bubble life amid Covid 'nervousness'
Australia, at least, are in their cricket season. But there has been precious little match time for most since the end of the WBBL, with the WNCL one-day competition barely getting started amid Covid, although Perry, Rachael Haynes and Nicola Carey all made hundreds in the matches that were possible. It is most problematic for the quicks who need to build up their workloads.
"Scattered," Mott said when asked about preparations. "The English would probably say the same. It's not ideal. But every sporting team in the world would say that at the moment and it's certainly no excuse. This is the moment where we click into cricket mode. We've done a lot of workshopping, what can and can't happen… I'm confident the group is resilient and adaptable enough to deal with whatever comes."
England have not held the Ashes since their away victory in 2013-14. Given their depth and home advantage, Australia will start favourites. They were challenged by India earlier in the season and the eventual 11-5 margin was a little flattering, but it gave a chance to bring in a number of newer players with Jess Jonassen and Megan Schutt missing from the bowling attack.
This time, they will be without Georgia Wareham and Sophie Molineux and though that is balanced by Jonassen's return, it leaves the spin department looking very different. And the preference of uncapped legspinner Alana King ahead of Amanda-Jade Wellington was a big call by the selectors.
Tahlia McGrath, Player of the Series against India, has added to Australia's strength after returning to international cricket looking a complete allrounder. From a fringe player, she now demands inclusion and, though Beth Mooney's broken jaw may have changed things in the short term, it will provide some interesting selection debates.
Australia's growing list of quick bowlers is one thing that sets them apart. Darcie Brown and Tayla Vlaeminck are two of the fastest, while Stella Campbell, who took 7 for 25 in the WNCL recently, has only been able to make the Australia A squad. In that regard, it was a little surprising that Issy Wong did not make England's main Ashes group. Although she only managed nine wickets in 13 WBBL matches for Sydney Thunder, her fast outswing often did not get the reward it deserved.
England do, however, have a strong squad of their own, led by Heather Knight, who will carry a lot of the batting expectations alongside Nat Sciver and Tammy Beaumont. With the ball left-arm spinner Sophie Ecclestone, who took a remarkable 7 for 14 in a warm-up match, will be crucial across all formats while Katherine Brunt, a warrior of an allrounder who may be playing her final Ashes, continues to lead the pace attack.
Brunt is one of five England players who were part of the Test victory in Perth in 2013-14 - regarded as one of the finest matches in the format - along with fellow seamers Anya Shrubsole and Kate Cross, who took 13 wickets between them.
There is a new generation starting to make their mark as well. Sophia Dunkley had a breakout series against India, and offspinner Charlie Dean claimed ten wickets in five matches against New Zealand. In the England A squad, 17-year-old Alice Capsey may soon be pushing for higher honours.
But regardless of how the two sides match up, what happens in the middle will likely be only one part of the story of this Ashes.
Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo