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England’s lack of preparation for the Ashes is so concerning that the seamers were given a treasure hunt to complete in Brisbane on Wednesday in a desperate attempt to put some miles into their legs after another washed out day of their intra-squad practice match.
The second day of their warm-up matches at the Ian Healy Oval fell victim to the heavy rain pounding Queensland this week and in order to give bored players something to do the England strength and conditioning coach, Phil Scott, sent them on long walks around the city to keep busy. They were given clues and questions to answer about the city’s landmarks.
The washout has left England just two more days for any meaningful centre practice before the first Test at the Gabba next week.
With further rain forecast, England are considering stretching the match into Saturday, when sunshine is expected, but it looks inevitable their bowlers will go into the first Test massively underprepared.
The weather has also played havoc with preparing the Test pitch which due to the rain could be slower than a usual Gabba surface and have more green grass, something that could play to England’s strengths. It is pace and bounce that has caused batsmen unaccustomed to Australian conditions so many problems in the past at the Gabba.
Fitness concerns over Anderson and Broad
England’s major concerns will be around the readiness of James Anderson and Stuart Broad next week. Both need to be properly tuned up before bowling long spells in Test cricket. Anderson managed just four overs of the last Ashes series before pulling up with a calf strain partly because he was undercooked and Broad is recovering from an ankle injury.
It is a tough call because with a pitch likely to be greener than usual, England will want Broad and Anderson’s skills and experience, especially as they lean towards an all seam attack.
The players are allowed out the hotel in Brisbane, but only in groups of four to avoid the risk of being pinged by Covid contact tracers. It has not stopped the usual words of encouragement from Brisbane cricket fans.
“I was having some food the other day in Brisbane with Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad and some guy came over afterwards and started saying 'hey guys, I just want to wish you the worst of luck at the Gabba. So that was quite funny," said Jack Leach on Tuesday. "And then he said to us 'It's going to be a green seamer at the Gabba' and I was thinking 'I'm not sure that's the best sledge to two of the greatest bowlers that England have ever had'. I think they were pretty pleased about that."
Leach must have been thrilled when Ben Stokes was passed fit for the tour because his presence in the side improves his own chances of playing. He was left out for the whole summer but is the senior spinner in the squad on this tour. Leach played on a Lions tour to Australia and two stints in grade cricket but with overseas finger spinners normally easy prey on Australian pitches, Joe Root is likely to still favour a seam attack.
Left armers Paul Harris and Keshav Maharaj contributed to South Africa’s series wins here in 2009 and 2016, while Graeme Swann’s 15 wickets 11 years ago were important too, but if picked next week Leach will have an unenviable task of knowing Australians will go after him and he will wonder if he can cannot trust his action to save him given his complete lack of rhythm.
Aussies equally under-prepared for first Test
With Australia having not played Test cricket for 11 months, and their preparation equally non-existent, the quality of next week’s Test match is unlikely to be high but on a pitch offering help to the bowlers it should be entertaining.
It will also be the first for 30 years to feature two home umpires, adding to the uniqueness of this Ashes. Rod Tucker and Paul Reiffel will be the first Australians to officiate a home Ashes Test since the 1990-91 series.
It is a consequence of the Covid regulations and all of England’s Tests over the past two summers have been officiated by English umpires.
Ray Illingworth is still grumbling about Australian umpires not giving his team a single lbw in the 1970-71 series and after the last series featuring two Australian umpires 30 years ago, Phil Tufnell wrote in his autobiography about asking one of them how many balls were left in his over. “Count 'em yourself you Pommie ----.”
Home umpires have barely been an issue during covid. Those on the elite panel are well paid and their jobs rely on consistency of decisions and are constantly scrutinised by the decision review system.
A final decision is close to being made on the final Test with Perth almost certain to lose the match. The MCG stands by to hold a second Test of the series which will have to be a day-night fixture if played on the east coast because it has been sold to broadcasters on Perth time.
Hobart and Canberra are pushing for the match but moving it to the MCG would bring in around £11-12m revenue. Canberra and Hobart would be much less lucrative for Cricket Australia (around £2-3m). Both sets of players are also understood to be unwilling to go through the harsh quarantine rules in Perth.