The Ashes: Australia and England look to put off-field problems to one side as fierce rivalry reignites

The Ashes: Australia and England look to put off-field problems to one side as fierce rivalry reignites
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Australia and England take to the field for the first Test on Wednesday of the highly-anticipated Ashes series, with both teams burdened by off-pitch scandals in recent weeks.

Considered by some the pinnacle of cricket, The Ashes, is five-Test series of contests between the two powerhouses and is the sport’s oldest rivalry.

Beginning in 1882, there have been 71 Ashes series, with Australia winning 33, England victorious in 32, with six draws.

England endured a dismal defeat by Australia on home soil at The Oval in that 1882 encounter, with a newspaper, the Sporting Times, carrying a satirical obituary of English cricket, stating that: “The body will be cremated and the ashes taken back to Australia.”

When England traveled to Australia for the return series, it gained revenge with captain Ivo Bligh awarded a small terracotta urn to symbolize the winning of the Ashes.

That tiny trophy is arguably the most precious prize in world cricket, though the 72nd edition of the series begins under something of a cloud.

English cricket has been rocked by the Yorkshire racism saga, while Australia head into the series with a new captain in fast bowler Pat Cummins after Tim Paine stepped down over a “sexting” scandal which laid dormant for more than three years.

“The way the buildup has been here, it’s been a little bit challenging in certain ways,” England wicketkeeper Jos Buttler said before day one of the opening Test.

“What’s important is to again, assess conditions and bowl well with what’s required on the pitch.”

Ahead of the first Test at the Gabba in Brisbane on Wednesday, here’s everything you need to know.

Living up to the hype

Both teams will have to go a way to live up to the excitement of the last Ashes in 2019.

When the two nations last faced off in England, Australia retained the famous urn on opposition soil with a 2-2 draw for the first time in nearly two decades behind the brilliancy of batter Steve Smith and an excellent bowling attack, led by Cummins.

But with each side’s disrupted preparations, it may be the case of whoever can regroup the quickest will end up on top.

Despite entering with a new captain, playing on home soil, Australia are firm favorites to retain the Ashes for a second successive series.

It is a feat not achieved by Australia since 2002-03 when Steve Waugh’s side claimed an eighth straight series win.

And behind Cummins — the world’s No. 1 ranked bowler — Australia will hope to rattle through an inexperienced England batting line up with his fellow fast bowlers Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood.

Smith is Australia’s danger man with the bat. The 32-year-old was the leading run scorer in the past three Ashes and has made the third most Ashes centuries in history, with 11 from 27 Tests.

For England, the return of star all-rounder Ben Stokes couldn’t have come at a better time.

The 30-year-old had taken a break from all cricket in July for his mental well-being and to recover from a finger injury but was added to the Ashes squad in October.

He will provide much-needed experience to the England side alongside captain Joe Root, especially with one its best ever players not playing in the opening Test.

On Tuesday, it was announced that England’s bowling great Jimmy Anderson had been left out of the team for the first Ashes Test.

The 39-year-old, England’s all-time leading wicket-taker, is not injured but is being rested for the rest of the series.

A tough place to go

Opening at the Gabba hasn’t always been a happy place for England.

Nicknamed the “Gabbatoir” because of its ominous record, England have not won at the ground since Mike Gatting’s team in the 1986/87 series, with six of the last eight trips to Brisbane ending in defeat.

The last time the England didn’t lose at the Gabba in 2010, they went on to win the 2010/11 Ashes, only their second triumph on Australian soil in the last 34 years.

The fifth and final final Test originally scheduled for Perth will be played at a different venue because of Covid-19 restrictions in Western Australia, which currently bans travelers from New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia from crossing its border without undergoing 14 days quarantine.

The fourth Test finishes in the New South Wales capital of Sydney on January 9, which would not leave enough time for players to isolate before the scheduled beginning of the finale of the upcoming series.

Melbourne, Hobart and Sydney are possible venues to host the final Test.

Here are the dates and venues for the five Tests:

December:

8-12 — 1st Test, Brisbane

16-20 — 2nd Test, Adelaide

26-30 — 3rd Test, Melbourne

January:

5-9 — 4th Test, Sydney

14-18 — 5th Test, venue TBC

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