Cricket hasn’t had its problems to seek in recent months. The damning consequences of Azeem Rafiq’s testimony about “institutionalised racism” in the game throughout Yorkshire has sparked a slew of further damaging revelations across England.
Indeed, such has been the cataclysmic impact of the abuse suffered by Rafiq, who himself had to apologise for offensive social media comments, while former Australian Test captain Tim Paine was tearfully forced to stand down after a so-called “sexting” scandal, that one could be forgiven for imagining the whole sport was bedevilled by reprobates doing unsavoury things.
It isn’t – or not to any great extent – and hopefully, the more positive aspects will be highlighted in the weeks ahead when the baggy-green brigade launch their defence of the Ashes against Joe Root’s England, with the action commencing at the Gabba in Brisbane tonight.
There’s always something captivating about these contests. Back in the early 1970s, I can remember listening to the crackling radio commentary from Down Under in the wee sma’ hours with a thrill that has never abated.
Outside, in Scotland, a blizzard might be raging in the middle of winter. But, for a few hours at least, I was transported to Sydney or Brisbane, Melbourne or Adelaide, where competitors were battling for supremacy in the heat of the Australian summer as cricket’s longest-running rivalry raged on.
It’s difficult to predict how this series will unfold, given how little Test action the hosts have managed since they held on to the prized urn in 2019, despite the heroics of Ben Stokes during an epic last-wicket stand with Jack Leach which brought England an unlikely victory in the Third Test at Headingley.
Following Paine’s resignation and decision to take a sabbatical from the game, paceman Pat Cummins has been handed the leadership duties with Steve Smith – the ex-captain who was mired in ball-tampering controversy three years ago – putting a sliver of vice into vice-captain.
Time waits for no man in sport
The Australians have plenty of options in the bowling department, with Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon a formidable quartet who will fancy their chances in conditions they relish.
But their batting has a vulnerable look about it and time may be running out for David Warner, the 35-year-old larrikin who resembled a startled rabbit in the headlights during the last Ashes joust.
Much will depend on the mercurial Smith, who performed as if he was Superman, displaying creased lightning and defying everything England could throw at him in Blighty. But, on recent evidence, his tics and eccentricities are starting to create problems in his own head. If he doesn’t add cement to the middle order and offer succour to Travis Head and Cameron Green, the Aussie edifice could come crashing down like the House of Usher.
England, for their part, have proved similarly fragile in posting significant totals on their travels and Root, who has been in magnificent form for the last 18 months, will be one of the key figures in their campaign. It’s remarkable, given his abundance of talent, that he has never scored a century in Australia, so that is something he will have to put right in the next two months.
In some cases, there’s definitely a whiff of old gunslingers embarking on a last hurrah at the OK Corral. What about James Anderson, 39, and Stuart Broad, 35, who have been wonderful servants for their team, but will have to put their bodies through the wringer during the hectic schedule.
If they click and are backed up by Ollie Robinson and Leach or Dom Bess and Chris Woakes, then there is every chance of England creating problems for their opponents. But the biggest question in the build-up is surely the return of Stokes, a dynamic batsman, penetrative bowler and superb fielder, who has exactly the qualities to emulate Andrew Flintoff’s heroics back in 2005.
However, an awful lot has happened to him since the pyrotechnics of the 2019 series and his pivotal part in helping England win the World Cup.
He lost his father, suffered injury to his finger, then chose to take an extended break to deal with mental health issues. And Stokes has made no secret of the fact he is undercooked with almost no cricket under his belt since that triumphant year, which ended with him collecting the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award at the P&J Live in Aberdeen.
He said last week: “I was in a real dark place and having some difficult thoughts. I was always one of those people who wouldn’t talk about how they are feeling and just keep it internal and crack on. I now realise talking is such a powerful thing and it has completely changed me.”
He hasn’t lost his powers, but the Ashes is no environment to be used as a training area for players seeking match practice. However, Stokes is confident – “I know I can focus again on playing my best cricket this winter” – and, if he achieves that goal, England are probably favourites, even away from home.
Let’s just hope we’re talking about positive cricket from now until January!