England fans beware – tourists have never gone into an Ashes tour Down Under so underprepared

·4-min read
England players take part in a training session in the countdown to the Ashes - England fans beware – tourists have never gone into an Ashes tour Down Under so undercooked - GETTY IMAGES
England players take part in a training session in the countdown to the Ashes - England fans beware – tourists have never gone into an Ashes tour Down Under so undercooked - GETTY IMAGES

A week before the first Test, and the Ashes build-up still lacks any actual cricket to discuss. That is partly a product of Covid-19 complications, partly of the relentless fixture list depriving players of a block of first-class cricket to prepare for Brisbane, and partly of plain bad luck.

In the past week, it has rained almost unstintingly in south Queensland, depriving both England and Australia alike of any meaningful cricket during their inter-squad warm-up games. Were this England, we can be sure, the Aussies would be unsparing in making jokes about the English weather.

As schedules have become more intense, players have become accustomed to a substandard build-up before Test series. But before an Ashes tour there has never been anything quite like this: with rain having led to the abandonment of the opening day of England’s final warm-up game, England have still only had 29 overs of cricket in Australia. Even if some of their final warm-up game, which is scheduled to finish on Friday, can be salvaged, you could call this the worst-prepared English team to ever take the field at the start of an Ashes tour.

By the time of the first Test in Brisbane on December 8, it will have been 76 days since any of England’s Test team last played a first-class match. For many, it will have been considerably longer; Jos Buttler has not played a first-class match since August 28 – 103 days before Brisbane. When he takes the field at the Gabba, it will have been 157 days since Ben Stokes last played a first-class match.

Rain stopped play Down Under

After being thrashed in consecutive Ashes series Down Under – England could hardly complain that the combined 9-0 scoreline from the 10 Tests 2013/14 and 2017/18 series was unfair – England resolved to ensure they were better prepared for this series. An advanced party of players not involved in the T20 World Cup was sent to Australia, with the Lions accompanying the main squad to provide the competitive cricket that the motley array of warm-up matches that Cricket Australia had arranged four years ago had conspicuously failed to do. The strategy aimed to learn from Australia’s retention of the Ashes in 2019, but has been decimated by the weather.

Yet perhaps England, as under-prepared as they are, can draw solace from New Zealand’s exploits in the first Test in India. New Zealand didn’t even have any intra-squad warm-up matches before the opening Test, with the schedule so saturated that Test specialists were required to train during the morning of matches before the T20 side.

'In the Covid era things have changed quite a lot'

But in Kanpur New Zealand were able to overcome this handicap, salvaging a draw. They were indebted to three fine performances from players who had not played any cricket, with red or white ball, on the tour: Tom Latham scored 95 and 52, Will Young scored 89 and Kyle Jamieson took six wickets in the match. In the process they suggested that preparation for modern players can't be measured in competitive cricket alone, and that players can overcome inadequate build-up to a tour through mental strength and drawing on previous experiences of playing in a country.

Certainly, this is Buttler’s view. "In this day and age, lots of us go between formats quite often," he said. "In the Covid era things have changed quite a lot as well, with quarantine rules making certain things a little bit trickier.

"I do think it's something that you just have to deal with as a modern player, to be able to walk into situations without having full preparation. No team should be using that as excuses, you can still turn up on that first day and play a really good Test match."

None of this obscures that England are not in the optimal position to produce their best from day one at Brisbane. Consider how Buttler’s Test record is appreciably better when he has reacquainted himself with the red-ball game – his modest average of 24.2 in the first match of a series, soars to 38.4 thereafter. At least, by the time of Brisbane, he will have had almost a month to think about the demands of red-ball batting.

And England can hardly claim a monopoly on substandard preparation. As well as losing their captain, Australia have five members of their side who have not played any first-class cricket at all since April; the side’s last Test was almost 11 months ago too. If the upshot is a series in which Test cricket falls short of the highest quality, the players should be afforded some sympathy.

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