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Here we are then, on the cusp of an Ashes that feels both less of an inconvenience and more equipped than projections at the end of the English summer. Much has changed, most meaningfully in Australia where borders have opened up and Covid-19 regulations loosened.
Speaking on Tuesday in an official pre-tour briefing with the English and Australian press, Joe Root was as cheery as he has been just two days out from departure. There has been much conjecture over the last year as to how this series would play out logistically, never “if”. Root, himself an uncertain participant until he confirmed last time he would lead the side to Australia for a second time, has been key to convincing others.
While the England and Wales Cricket Board and Cricket Australia (CA) embarked on amicable negotiations, the captain acted as a more personable representative: allaying fears and giving assurances that concessions would be made to counter the strict quarantine measures in place across the states set to host the five Tests. For now, the only uncertainty is Perth, the venue for the final Test, with Western Australia holding firm on their rules.
“Everyone is excited to be involved in an Ashes series,” effused Root over Zoom, donned in England tracksuit. “My role in all of that was making sure we were comfortable with the environments we were going to be in. I think having a good understanding of how difficult it’s been as players – especially the multi-format players and guys who’ve played a lot of cricket throughout this pandemic – and having a real sympathy with what that’s been like.
“Also I’ve spent quite a lot of time in that environment myself but also everyone is fully aware what a great opportunity we have ahead of us and in that respect, you do not have to convince anyone of anything. It’s more making sure we have an environment that allows us to play a standard Test cricket deserves.”
Those in the Ashes squad not currently involved in the T20 World Cup will fly out to Brisbane on Thursday where they will undergo 14 days of quarantine on the Gold Coast. Only the first three will see them confined to their rooms before getting the opportunity to use hotel facilities and train at the local Metricon sports facility. After those two weeks, players and staff will be able to go about as normal, governed by common sense. “We’re very grateful for that,” Root reiterated. Of all the talk of this being the bitterest of rivalries, CA and the Australian government have done England a solid.
No doubt Root’s cheer has been enhanced by the presence of friend and vice-captain Ben Stokes. The all-rounder was confirmed in the touring party a fortnight ago as his recovery from a damaged left finger and mental health issues accelerated. Stokes took a prolonged break midway through the summer but is much better place on all fronts.
Going to Australia without Stokes felt a bit like heading there without sunscreen. Few have combatted the harshness of this rivalry as well as the 30-year-old: first as a debutant during the 5-0 battering of 2013-14, then for the win in 2015 and drawn series in 2019 that allowed Tim Paine’s men to return home with the urn.
He averages nearly 40 against Australia, with three centuries to his name, the first of which came in that first tour, along with 6-99 at Sydney in 2014. Conspicuous by his absence in the 4-0 loss in 2017-18, this overdue second tour carries a lot more than team balance.
“I think he’s a massive asset in many respects,” said Root. “First and foremost his performance on the field, especially what he has done against Australia in the recent past. But also the way that he plays his cricket.
“Look at where we are going: we are going to have periods of play where it’s going to be very challenging. We’re going have to have people stick their hands up and grab the game – he is someone who will always do that. He’ll lead from the front in that respect, he is a brilliant leader in the dressing room and people follow him. They look at how he works, how he practices, how he goes about his cricket. And they all want to go along with him.”
Root is no different. And as he goes on to talk about the need to process the information garnered from those who have toured Australia in the past, his own learnings ahead of his third outing are something of a necessity.
He has carried England on his back in 2020, with six hundreds making up a staggering 1,455 runs, averaging 66.13. More of the same will be needed if the side are to be competitive and if Root is to address his failings in this part of the world. Averages of 27.42 and 47.25 in the previous tours have come without hundreds.
“I think I probably wanted it too much,” he reflects. “I was too desperate, and it had probably a negative impact on the way I played. I put too much pressure on myself, and I think one of the things that have really helped me this year is stripping a little of that back, really going and enjoying my cricket, and my batting, and I have a bit more clarity and understanding of my own game. One thing I have got coming into this series is a lot more evidence and information on those conditions than the last two tours. That will stand me in good stead as well.”
Perhaps the shiniest silver-lining comes in the form of the Lions tour of Australia that will run parallel to the showpiece event. The Lions will leave with the squad and provide the opposition for the main squad across two warm-up matches.
The phoney wars of recent Ashes series have featured complaints about the standard of opposition for these tune-ups. Australia took matters into their own hands in 2019 with an intrasquad match, and England will follow suit with two matches against the Lions out of necessity given border restrictions.
The management and Root see these games as a way of learning from history. Not just by enhancing preparation with higher-level competition, but tuning up alternates in the event they are thrust into action off the back of withdrawals from the main squad.
“We only have to look back at the two previous Ashes tours to know there have been injuries,” said Root. “This is a great opportunity for people to put their hands up and show what they are capable of doing in case anything like that happens again.”
Also along for the ride will be families. Some are heading out from the start, while the ECB have also negotiated for some to arrive towards the Christmas period, in the week between the second (Adelaide) and third (Melbourne) Tests. Many of the players have young families and further time apart after 18 months of bubbles and bio-secure living, especially at Christmas, was a barrier that has now been overcome.
Those out in the UAE for the World Cup are enjoying the benefits of having family on deck. Many within the camp believe it has added an extra togetherness, and that much was clear on Sunday when the squad embraced Halloween as the kids trick-or-treated around the team hotel.
Only so much of this will matter come that first Test in Brisbane on 8 December. It was here back in January that Australia played their last Test: a defeat to India that sealed one of the more remarkable away wins since England’s own in 2010-11. And it is what Virat Kohli’s side achieved (or rather, Ajinkya Rahane given the main skipper was ruled out for the last three Tests of that series) that gives England heart, along with the eight-wicket demolition of Australia the T20 side managed just last week.
“I think it [India’s 2-1 win] just proved to the rest of the world it’s not a place you can’t go and win. One thing we’ve tried to do really well ahead of this series is being extremely well-prepared.
“We’ve got a good understanding of how they play their cricket at home and I think it’s just making sure we do the work now and we give ourselves that confidence. And also probably try and lean on that confidence and performance the T20 side put in the other night. There will be guys from both teams involved in that series and I suppose you want to try and capture as much confidence going into that series as much as you can.”
Of course, optimism for an overseas Ashes tour is never higher than at the beginning. Nevertheless, Root’s spirits are understandably buoyed not just in the manner the series is going ahead, but being able to head down under with all their best available assets.