England and Australia set to thrill in Ashes to provide cricket’s ultimate distraction

Cricket does not have much in common with pizza. But it does share the fundamental that even when it’s low quality, it’s still pretty damn good.

That may well be the crux of this 72nd Ashes series. Beginning on Wednesday in Brisbane. An Australia side in mild disarray host an England team who did not know disarray comes in half-measures. Both have ideas of their best XIs but have been unable to test these theories in competitive warm-up action or high-intensity training as the La Nina weather front brought storm after storm onto Queensland. On paper at least, the feeling is this will be far from a collector’s item and may do well to make it onto the fridge door.

But it might be entertaining. Many of the same protagonists from 2019 remain on deck with more scars than fond memories. When it was all said and done, Australia retained the urn via a 2-2 scoreline that gives a false perception of two fighters going 12 rounds for a split decision. The reality was the world class moments – Steve Smith brilliance, Jofra Archer’s emergence, Smith against Archer, Marnus Labuschagne, Marnus against Archer and Ben Stokes – punctuated what was a relatively low-quality conclusion of a memorable summer.

This time around, expectations are low. Australia should probably win, as they usually do. England, though, may not be bageled as they were in 2013-14 (5-0) and 2017-18 (4-0). Rain is scheduled to feature prominently at the Gabba, like coughs in an anecdote.

The pandemic has dulled the prickliness of this affair, in dispiriting yet refreshing, even necessary ways. Both boards have been working together since about this time last year to ensure this lucrative series goes ahead. Cricket Australia took the lead on negotiations with the Australian government on their behalf to make England’s arrival and quarantine far more palatable than was originally planned.

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Players on both sides have reached out to make their own assurances of conditions, even in some cases offering a willing ear to any complaints.

When both groups involved in the T20 World Cup flew out on the same plane, the Australian party, the newly crowned short-format champions were more than respectful throughout the shared flight from the United Arab Emirates to Queensland.

Even a lack of Barmy Army attendance – plenty of expats will be present, of course – will no doubt affect attendances throughout, and mean jibes from the stands are considerably one-sided.

Rarely in the modern era has an Ashes series crept upon us so quietly. The weeks before are usually saturated with talk and counter-talk, on ambitions and agendas, pissing contests and come-over-here-and-say-that posturing. We had to wait until the very limit of November to get our first prediction of a 5-0 home win from an Australian (Nathan Lyon, who else?) and even that lacked its usual conviction.

Australia’s vice captain Steve Smith prepares to bat in the nets at the Gabba in Brisbane

So little noise that no doubt many viewers back in the United Kingdom have forgotten to cancel their Sky subscriptions. BT, armed with the rights, have been in the midst of their own quiet maelstrom.

The presence of Michael Vaughan in the Fox Commentary team BT were going to take for their match coverage has been a contentious issue behind the scenes. While he continues to reside under a dark cloud following the allegations set against him by Azeem Rafiq, the UK broadcaster has searched for alternatives.

Australia’s new captain Patrick Cummins and Steve Smith

Therein lies the clearest reason a series talked up years in advance is only picking up traction days out. Conversations in the English game have been on far graver issues than the game itself. Australia, too, have been through their own ringer with the manner of former captain and wicketkeeper Tim Paine’s departure pertaining to a text message scandal three years ago. In that regard, rarely has such a historic series, one that props up the interest and economy of cricket in both countries, seemed so trivial.

And in that way, perhaps both have not needed it more. Both sets of players are keen to get going, having themselves spent more time introspecting in these last 18 months than ever before. Those more front-facing, such as Root, have had to address areas far beyond their expertise and, in the case of Root, done so with good intention but also misjudgements.

England captain Joe Root takes part in a training session at the Gabba

Sport has always been the ultimate distraction, and never more so as it has barrelled on through this global pandemic. And though cricket’s cluttered schedule is a blight on its players, it has also provided many with refuge.

Perhaps we, the observers, need this too. As much to distract as to nourish, and over the next six weeks, food for the soul will be served by two teams in competition who do not quite have a gauge of themselves.

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Rubbish cricket is often the most fun. For those of us back in the United Kingdom now looking over our shoulder at the ever-impending threat of the omicron variant delivering us another dispiriting Christmas, a bit of fun will go a long way right now.

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