December 8, 2021 signals Day 1 of the Ashes.
It will be highly anticipated as always, but accompanied by the uncertainties of another season navigating a pandemic, the host nation returning to Test cricket with a new captain after a rare 11-month layoff, and the combatants unsure of what their best XI is.
If you count the shortened rubber against India as a 2-1 loss, England have just dropped multiple series in a home summer for the first time in 35 years.
Fleet Street famously claimed the subsequent Ashes tourists had just three issues – couldn’t bat, bowl or field – and a young Australian team led by Allan Border sensed a quick return to the glory days.
That team would go on to defeat Australia 2-1 – a result that flattered the home side.
The heroes on that occasion were unconventional opener Chris Broad (487 runs at 69.57), star batter David Gower (404 runs at 57.71), and talisman all-rounder Ian Botham, who set the tone with a rollicking 138 on the second day of the series.
England has some confidence in each of these roles. Rory Burns frustrated Australia up top in 2019 with 390 runs, Joe Root is in the form of his life and arch-nemesis Ben Stokes has belatedly made the plane.
One thing England can call on for support is enviable fast-bowling depth.
Jofra Archer’s pace and bounce will be missed, but Mark Wood can play that role if he can stay fit, while the likes of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes, Craig Overton, Ollie Robinson and Stokes help form a competitive attack.
Compare that to Australia where – outside of the incumbent trio – Jhye Richardson is the only capped quick in contention without an injury cloud, and he’s not long back from his own issues. More on this concern later.
Spin is a different story, but Jack Leach can be relied upon to hold up an end, while Matt Parkinson is dominating county cricket with his slow leg breaks.
The latter’s craft is more suited to flat Australian wickets, however England’s uneasy relationship with leg spin has seen him consigned to the reserves thus far.
Batting is the obvious weakness – Root is the only member of the squad that averages over 36 – although Dawid Malan returns just in time to build on his impressive 2017-18 Ashes where he recorded 383 runs at 43.
December 8, 2021 also marks the 37th birthday of ex-Australian skipper Tim Paine.
Of the 27 wicketkeepers with more Test dismissals than Paine, just six made it to the same age. History says the men behind the stumps find life tougher halfway through their fourth decade.
Ian Healy’s skills deserted him after turning 35. A dropped catch shortly after hitting 36 was enough for Adam Gilchrist to retire from Tests midway through his final match.
BJ Watling – a strong contender for keeper of the 2010s – recently called it quits just shy of his 36th birthday, with early signs his form was on the wane.
Until his text-messaging scandal became public, it seemed a fait accompli that Paine would lead his country into battle, alongside other veterans with big question marks.
Mitchell Starc was rendered toothless by the end of last summer, while David Warner has played two injury-affected Tests in close to two years, has no first class hundred since November 2019 and is coming up against arch-nemesis Broad.
Take nothing away from India. To conjure a maiden away victory against a full-strength Australia off a backdrop of 36 all out, mass injuries and chasing a formidable total at the Gabba fortress is nothing short of remarkable.
But the reality is that a string of blunders cost Australia victory and a crack at the World Test Championship.
Take your pick: backing in a helpless Joe Burns, the continued selection of a struggling Starc, a clearly underdone Warner, a bowling attack that became more one-dimensional by the day, crucial missed chances by Paine, or slow over rates.
The bulk of these errors occurred in the final two matches where Australia were denied what should have been comfortable victories.
If the squad for the cancelled South African tour was any indication, the only member from those matches – player or coach – who was going to pay the price was Matthew Wade.
The decision to omit Wade was correct. Despite his adaptability as fill-in opener and ability to start an innings, by the end of the series it was apparent that his temperament for the longest form of the game had vanished.
Wade’s problems had far less to do with the result though, so the prospect of seeing the remaining Gabba ten retain their spot is hard to swallow.
Lack of accountability aside, a near-unchanged XI suggests either a lack of faith in the bench strength, or a dangerous belief that the tourists will simply roll over.
Starc can be afforded another chance, noting recent personal issues and the balance he usually brings to the attack, however it would be in Australia’s best interest to blood another quick as soon as possible.
Richardson may well have leapfrogged him in the pecking order after an eye-catching start to the Shield season, although the prospect of a rotation system would allow Starc to build up for conditions that suit him best, such as the Adelaide day-night Test.
Perennial back-up Michael Neser should also be given a chance at some point, and his all-round ability opens the door to play five bowlers. This would also free up young gun Cameron Green to focus on batting while his body matures.
Warner may have been a lock purely on lack of competition due to Will Pucovski’s ongoing concussion battle, but a timely return to form in the T20 World Cup finals looks to have settled it.
The candidates are coming though. Queenslander Bryce Street now boasts four first class hundreds at 43 and has demonstrated a knack for batting long. This shapes as the perfect foil for the more dynamic operators in the side.
South Australian Henry Hunt also put his name up in lights with an outstanding solo effort last week in Hobart. Both openers have youth on their side and have been rewarded with Australia A selection.
Usman Khawaja is in the mix based on impressive home and opening stats, but having not filled the role in some time, his most likely way back to the team is in the middle order.
As for Paine, three players have gone past him from a pure wicketkeeping perspective. Josh Inglis bolted onto the scene last year with 585 Sheffield Shield runs at 73 and is a class act behind the stumps, but his call up for the T20 World Cup leaves the door wide open for Alex Carey.
The South Australian has a wealth of international experience, impressive Shield form (722 runs at 55 since 2019-20) and has made a good start to the new domestic season with the gloves.
Throw in his leadership credentials and he can help cover the void Paine would leave, regardless of who ultimately assumes the captaincy.
Jimmy Peirson has also thrown his hat in the ring, with recent Shield runs complementing his consistent glovework. All three are indisputably superior batters at this stage in their careers, which would be even more critical in a five-bowler line-up.
Paine missing the start of the domestic summer – and now losing the captaincy – might have some hitting the panic button. It should be viewed as an opportunity to start afresh.