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Ashes will come down to how sides manage ‘unique’ build-up – Root

England begin their bid to regain the Ashes from Australia when the first Test starts in Brisbane on Wednesday.

Joe Root’s side are aiming to become the first England team to win down under since 2010-11, while holders Australia, now led by Pat Cummins, need only a draw to retain the urn.

Here is everything you need to know about the 72nd edition of cricket’s oldest rivalry.

Coverage

Test Match Special will provide ball-by-ball commentary on every match via BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, Radio 4 LW, online and the BBC Sounds app.

BT Sport have live TV coverage for UK viewers.

Where and when?

December

8-12 1st Test, Brisbane (Gabba) (00:00 GMT)

16-20 2nd Test, Adelaide (day/night) (04:00 GMT)

26-30 3rd Test, Melbourne (23:30 GMT, 25-29 Dec)

January

5-9 4th Test, Sydney (23:30 GMT, 4-8 Jan)

14-18 5th Test, Venue TBC

Australia will expect to start strongly at the Gabba, where England have not won since 1986, losing six Tests and drawing two in that time.

However, Australia’s ‘fortress’ was finally breached in January when India became the first touring side to win at the ground since 1988.

Perth will no longer host the final Test because of Covid-19 restrictions in Western Australia.

It could be moved to Melbourne, which hosts the third game of the series, and could be played as a day-night match, as is the second Test in Adelaide, which may favour England.

Other options include Sydney hosting both the fourth and fifth Tests or the final game being played in either Canberra or Hobart.

The multi-format Women’s Ashes, which features one Test, three Twenty20 internationals and three one-day internationals, runs from 27 January to 19 February 2022.

Key players

Ben Stokes (England)

England’s hopes were massively boosted when all-rounder Ben Stokes was added to their squad in October, following a break since July to protect his mental wellbeing and recover from a finger injury.

Stokes, 30, is England’s second-best batter after Root, a wicket-taking threat in all conditions, a superb fielder and someone who brings invaluable balance and leadership to the side.

He made his maiden Test century in Australia in 2013 and hit two tons – including a majestic 135 not out in a stunning one-wicket win at Headingley – in the last Ashes, having missed the 2017-18 series while waiting trial for affray, a charge of which he was acquitted.

Joe Root (England)

Root has risen to the top of the Test batting rankings this year with a stellar run of form, hitting six centuries in 12 matches.

The 30-year-old needs to score 334 more runs across the first three Tests to break Pakistan batter Mohammad Yousuf’s record of 1,788 runs in a calendar year – although he is also looking for his first Test century in Australia.

England are likely to need Root to sustain his impressive year to have a chance of winning the series, given their batting has proved brittle over recent years.

Pat Cummins (Australia)

Cummins became the first fast bowler to be appointed permanent Australia Test captain last month after Tim Paine’s resignation.

Cummins, 28, is the world’s number one ranked bowler, was the leading wicket-taker in the past two Ashes and will again spearhead a fearsome pace attack that also includes Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc.

Having had to wait six years after his debut in 2011 to play his second Test because of back injuries, Cummins has been the most durable Australia fast bowler in recent years and is aiming to play all five matches, with others rotating.

Steve Smith (Australia)

England must find a way to prevent Smith, 32, scoring too heavily if they hope to win.

Smith has made the third most Ashes centuries in history, with 11 from only 27 Tests – behind only England great Jack Hobbs (12) and Australia legend Don Bradman (19).

He was the leading runscorer in the past three Ashes and is now back in a leadership position as vice-captain after being stripped of the captaincy and banned for a year over the ball-tampering scandal in 2018.

Disrupted build-ups

This has been one of the most tumultuous build-ups to an Ashes series for both sides.

The England national side have become embroiled in the Azeem Rafiq racism scandal at Yorkshire County Cricket Club, following Rafiq’s claim that former England batter and Yorkshire team-mate Gary Ballance used ‘Kevin’ to describe any person of colour, including in the England dressing room.

Eight of England’s Ashes squad, including Root, played alongside Ballance during his four-year international career and the England and Wales Cricket Board is investigating the use of the term.

Former Australia captain Paine stepped down last month over a historical investigation into sexually explicit texts he sent to a female colleague in 2017, before also withdrawing from the series to take an indefinite break from cricket.

On the field, heavy rain has almost totally ruined both teams’ warm-up games.

England had only one day of play in their second intra-squad match against England Lions, having played just 29 overs in their first game against the same opposition, while Australia’s own three-day intra-squad match was completely cancelled.

There is also the risk of more state borders being closed because of the coronavirus pandemic and disrupting the schedule. South Australia, where the second Test will be played, stopped short of closing its borders last week but has not ruled out doing so in future.

History

Starting in 1882-83, there have been 71 Ashes series, with Australia winning 33, England winning 32 and six draws.

The last series, in England in 2019, was drawn 2-2, Stokes’ Headingley heroics in the third Test not enough to deny Australia, who won the next Test at Old Trafford to retain the Ashes.

However, England hit back to win the fifth Test at The Oval and secure the first drawn series since 1972.

Tim Paine’s side only needed a draw after a comprehensive 4-0 win at home in 2017-18 and they became the first Australia side since 2001 to retain the Ashes in England.

England ended a run of eight straight Ashes defeats with a famous victory in 2005 and then won four of the next six series, including a 3-1 triumph in 2010-11, but also suffered two chastening 5-0 whitewashes down under in 2006-07 and 2013-14.

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