Kate And A Mate: Kate Cross and Heather Knight review Women's AshesFeb 11
It’s nearly time for the resumption of one of the fiercest rivalries in world sport.
England and Australia are preparing to contest The Ashes for the first time since 2019, when Tim Paine’s side retained the urn after a riveting drawn series.
The ensuing pandemic had a wide-ranging impact on international cricket and both nations have had to negotiate lockdowns, empty stadiums and bubble life ever since.
But exactly how have England and Australia fared in Test cricket since the 2019 series?
October 2019-February 2020
Mixed fortunes for England as Australia dominate
England’s post-Ashes winter consisted of tours to New Zealand and South Africa.
Two Tests in Sri Lanka were also scheduled for early 2020 but later cancelled at the eleventh hour due to the pandemic.
Batsmen Dom Sibley and Zac Crawley were among several fresh faces in Joe Root’s squad for New Zealand, but there was an all too familiar feeling for the tourists after they were crushed in the first Test in Mount Maunganui.
An innings defeat was England’s third in their last four away Test matches and pressure was starting to build on Root.
The captain shored up his own position with a brilliant double hundred in Hamilton, but the hosts comfortably secured a draw in the second Test to seal a 1-0 series win.
“We want to become a much harder side to beat, first and foremost, and then go on and win games,” said Root.
England ended the year without a Test series victory for the first time since 1999 and desperately needed a change of fortunes in South Africa.
James Anderson, Jonny Bairstow and Mark Wood returned, but England’s preparations for the first Test were blighted by illness in the camp which affected 10 players.
They collapsed again and lost in convincing fashion in the series opener at Centurion, but the tide soon turned for a beleaguered England.
Ben Stokes bowled them to victory in the second Test in Cape Town and they sealed their biggest away win in more than nine years in the third in a match that saw Dom Bess and Ollie Pope impress.
They wrapped up their second overseas success in four years with a 191-run win in Johannesburg. “The sky is the limit,” said a gushing Root.
There were no signs of a post-Ashes malaise for Australia who won all five of their summer Test matches.
Justin Langer’s side were utterly dominant against Pakistan in a two-match Test series, winning both by an innings.
Marnus Labuschagne and David Warner set up victory in the first Test with glorious hundreds in a series which saw Ashes tourists Usman Khawaja, Marcus Harris and Peter Siddle overlooked.
If that was a thrashing, the second Test in Adelaide was a procession. Australia again won by an innings in a match that will be remembered for Warner’s astonishing 335 not out.
They were not in the mood for letting up against New Zealand in a Trans-Tasman battle either.
Mitchell Starc took nine wickets as they cantered to victory in the first Test, and they won the series with one match remaining after a 247-run triumph in Melbourne.
The whitewash was completed in Sydney as Australia capped an outstanding Test summer.
February 2020-December 2020
England adjust to bubble life with Australia locked down
England’s summer schedule was always going to be a moveable feast with the pandemic still raging.
West Indies’ tour of the UK was postponed to June and July, with all three Tests played behind closed doors in the bio-secure environments of Southampton and Manchester.
“There has been a real emphasis on solidity at the top of the order and getting first innings runs,” said now-departed national selector Ed Smith.
Predictably then, with Root absent to attend the birth of his second child, England failed to amass enough runs to exert pressure on an inspired West Indies side who won a memorable first Test at the Ageas Bowl by four wickets.
Stuart Broad was “frustrated, angry, gutted” after being left out in favour of Jofra Archer and Mark Wood but responded with a reminder of his enduring quality in the second Test which England won by 113 runs.
The series was wrapped up at Old Trafford in a landmark match for the resurgent Broad who claimed his 500th Test wicket.
“I’ve never shied away from intimidating moments in Test matches, in any sort of cricket, I really enjoy moments when the game needs changing,” he said after joining the elite club.
The Wisden Trophy was England’s, but attention quickly turned to a three-match Test series against Pakistan in August.
The players were only permitted a few days at home with their families before they returned to the bubble to prepare for a testing series against a talented Pakistan touring party.
After a disastrous day handed Azhar Ali’s side the initiative at Old Trafford, England miraculously recovered to snatch a three-wicket win largely thanks to an invaluable partnership between Chris Woakes and Jos Buttler.
A rain-affected second Test drifted to a draw in a match that saw Broad’s sensational summer continue and Anderson return to somewhere near his best.
England also had to settle for a draw in the third Test which saw Anderson make history by picking up his 600th wicket.
After two credible series wins and only one defeat in nine Tests, England were in a good spot ahead of an uncertain winter.
Conversely, Australia didn't play a single Test in the same period.
Stuck in endless cycles of lockdowns with severe travel restrictions and border closures, any momentum from a scintillating end to 2019 and start of 2020 had ground to a halt.
Australia and Bangladesh mutually agreed to postpone a series scheduled for June due to the Covid threat and the Aussies weren’t back in action until December.
December 2020-June 2021
England and Australia undone by brilliant India
England began 2021 with a rescheduled tour of Sri Lanka.
It signalled the start of the Three Lions' controversial rotation policy, brought in to protect players’ mental and physical well-being against the backdrop of more international cricket and the intensity of bubble life.
Moeen Ali and Bairstow were recalled with the uncapped Essex batsman Dan Lawrence also selected. Stokes and Archer were given a rest.
Root struck a superlative 228 to set up victory in the first Test in Galle to improve England’s chances of reaching the inaugural World Test Championship final.
They completed a series victory in the second Test at the same venue after chasing down a tricky 164 on day four. It was England’s fourth successive series win and they were unbeaten in 10 under Root’s captaincy.
Australia returned to action against India. They included batting sensation Will Pucovski and the prodigiously talented Cameron Green in an extended squad for the unforgettable series.
Looking to avenge a 2-1 defeat in 2018, Australia roared out of the blocks, winning the opening Test in Adelaide inside three days after bowling India out for 36.
Just 10 days later, the tourists bounced back to level the series without several key players including captain Virat Kohli and Mohammed Shami.
“Poor, sloppy cricket” was the verdict of captain Paine.
India took the series to a decider after showing incredible defiance to bat out the final day of the third Test in Sydney, with Rishabh Pant impressing.
One of the all-time great series concluded with a sensational India win in Brisbane, Australia’s first defeat at the Gabba since 1988.
Still without Kohli, a few fast bowlers and frontline spinners Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, they chased down a record 328 with three overs remaining to secure one of the great wins.
Reports of a more contagious coronavirus strain in South Africa put paid to Australia’s tour of the Rainbow Nation scheduled for February and March and they haven’t played a Test match since.
There were plenty of moving parts in England’s squad for the tour of India in February and March with rotation plans in full swing, but they came of age in Chennai to take the opening Test in a stunning win.
Kohli’s side had lost only one of their previous 35 home Tests and were overwhelming favourites, but ageless Anderson and Jack Leach bowled England to a famous victory.
The first blemish of the winter came in the second Test when they succumbed to a 317-run defeat on a deteriorating Chennai pitch.
The hosts won an astonishing third Test inside two days in the quickest win since 1935 in extremely challenging conditions in Ahmedabad.
England had no answer for the Indian spinners who set up a 10-wicket win, which ended their hopes of reaching the World Test Championship final.
Root, a part-time off-spinner who claimed 5-8, admitted that selecting one frontline spin bowler was a “slight misread”.
The manner of England’s defeat in India raised questions after an innings defeat in the final Test sealed a 3-1 victory for the hosts.
The rotation policy arguably created more problems than it solved.
They would, however, have a chance to avenge the series defeat in English conditions.
England stutter ahead of Ashes as Australia look inwards
Uncapped James Bracey and Ollie Robinson were included in England’s squad for two Tests against New Zealand in June.
Injured Stokes and Archer were absent, as well as a whole host of IPL players who had only just returned from the United Arab Emirates.
England resisted the temptation of a final-day chase at Lord’s as the first Test ended in a drab draw, a decision interpreted by some as an indicator of Root's confidence in his fellow batsmen.
They suffered a first home series defeat since 2014 when the brilliant Blackcaps won the second Test by eight wickets at Edgbaston, leaving England scrambling for answers with Ashes preparation time dwindling.
Root declared England were ready to shelve their contentious rotation policy ahead of a flagship series against India in August and September which saw the return of Bairstow, Craig Overton and Nottinghamshire batsman Haseeb Hameed.
Stokes was named in the squad but later withdrew to prioritise his mental wellbeing and to rest his left index finger.
Persistent rain scuppered a potentially thrilling finish to the first Test, but England sunk to a new low in the second at Lord’s when they surrendered a winning position on the final day to lose by 151 runs.
“Tactically I got a few things wrong, and a lot falls on my shoulders,” said Root after his side’s capitulation.
The captain’s phenomenal form with the bat continued at Headingley where he compiled a sublime 121 to give England a massive first innings lead.
Ollie Robinson was excellent with the ball, taking 5-65 to seal a huge win to level a fascinating series.
Ruthless India closed in on a series win with a 157-run victory at The Oval after England’s batsman crumbled again. Hameed boosted his Ashes hopes with a solid 63, but Jasprit Bumrah produced the spell of the summer to put the tourists in control.
The fifth Test was cancelled after Covid cases spread through the India squad in the lead up to what was shaping up to be a captivating finale. The match has since been rescheduled for next summer.
Meanwhile, a lean playing period seemingly allowed Australia some time for introspection.
Rumours emerged that the players had become disgruntled with coach Justin Langer’s intense management style in the wake of a 4-1 Twenty20 series humbling in Bangladesh.
Discussions described as “tough and robust” ended with Cricket Australia chiefs backing Langer in what now looks a wise move after Australia’s remarkable T20 World Cup triumph.
A one-off Test against Afghanistan, which would have been a major part of their Ashes preparation, has been cancelled after the Taliban banned women from playing sport, including cricket.
What does all this mean for this year’s Ashes?
England have played 24 Test matches since the last Ashes compared to Australia’s nine.
They have significantly more red-ball cricket under their belts which could prove decisive, but for various reasons - including rotation policies and Covid imponderables - have had a disrupted build up.
Ashes preparation has undoubtedly been going on behind the scenes, but they have had precious little rehearsal time in conditions they are likely to encounter in Australia where they have lost nine of their last 10 Tests.
Sending Crawley, Lawrence, Robinson and Bess to Australia with the Lions in 2019/20 could be a masterstroke, but several of England’s players have limited experience of Australian wickets.
Root and Chris Silverwood are still searching for a settled side for Brisbane, albeit they have warm-up games in the lead up to the Ashes opener to determine a winning formula.
Australia’s inactivity suggests rustiness could be a factor, but they are a force to be reckoned with at home and their team largely picks itself.
Many of their Test stars have either been playing in the shorter formats or featuring in the Sheffield Shield.
It’s conceivable that eight of the players who featured in the last Ashes Test at The Oval in 2019 could play at the Gabba.
They will also take part in intra-squad practice matches which are being billed as a final selection shootout ahead of the opening Test.
The impact of England and Australia’s preparation will be laid bare when two nations meet again for the historic urn, with every ball exclusively live on BT Sport this winter.