Ashes series gets green light amid familiar and inevitable fractiousness | Geoff Lemon

The Ashes series is go. Sort of. Kind of. The Ashes series is confirmed as long as various requirements are met when it comes to quarantining and playing in Australia. Which is effectively the same position that the England & Wales Cricket Board has been taking for the last few months, before Friday’s statement officially conveying the above. The important thing is that now they have said they actually will be going to Australia. Unless later they decide they are not. In which case they will say that they are not. Crowds are warmly invited to book tickets on this basis.

We can tell that an Ashes series is imminent, though, because like the first reddening leaves of autumn tell the season, there are the first exchanges of chippiness from prominent names over airwaves and online platforms. Tim Paine and Nathan Lyon have huffed on radio at England’s prevarication. English commentators have rolled out their disdain for Paine as not a proper cricketer.

This includes the Classic Banter™ that Australia’s wicketkeeper makes fewer runs than England’s best postwar batsman. (If you think that is embarrassing, wait till you see Joe Root compared to anyone in his own team.) Paine has responded as ill-advisedly as most of his potshots over the past couple of years.

Rather than forging togetherness, the coronavirus era provides fuel for fractiousness. England’s players want it understood that after a year and a half of biosecurity restrictions, they do not want two more months examining the decor of solitary hotel rooms. Fair enough. Within the game a notional acceptance is growing that the demands of a packed schedule are too high, but that has not reduced a contradictory insistence that if a few top players are absent then a contest becomes meaningless.

Australia’s players are annoyed at months of English indecision, especially given their own stints of quarantine and weeks of restrictions in 2020 to play white-ball matches in England at a scarier phase of the pandemic. In Australia today, vaccination rates are climbing fast and restrictions are easing.

Joe Root and Tim Paine with the trophy after the drawn series in 2019
Captains Joe Root and Tim Paine will soon renew their Ashes rivalry. Photograph: Visionhaus

The path to resentment from being misunderstood is a fast one. For England’s tourists it will come from being cast as insufficiently motivated or passionate, given all the loss their country has been through. Australians more broadly are riled by a British media portrayal of the country as some lunatic hermit state.

Barney Ronay wrote in these pages “about the spectacle of Australia’s captain mind-gaming out at the world from within his own sealed borders”, contrasted with the UK’s suffering. Sealed borders, though, are why Australia is approaching 1,500 Covid deaths while the UK approaches 150,000. The restrictions worrying England’s visitors are those that prevented similar suffering, and it is a result hard earned. Melbourne residents have passed 250 cumulative days in lockdown, so perhaps readers can understand the likely response to visitors complaining about a week or two on entry.

Indeed, you would not be in the jet-fuel-steel-beams area of thought to suggest that England’s players might be more enthusiastic about the trip if they thought they had a better chance of returning with a win. Test cricket surely has a higher degree of difficulty than any sport when it comes to playing away from home, and England’s year has involved not just a sequence of sapping defeats over three series but a broad attrition of players discarded, injured, recessed, retired, burned out or messed around by an incoherent team and selection strategy. Generating the self-belief and joie de vivre of a successful touring side looks a distant ambition.

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The comfort for England is that their opponents, whoever is picked, will be no more imposing. Australia’s batting has been Steve Smith & Friends for longer than Root has carried England, and it is not like Smith has been able to tune his long-form work. Australia’s four Tests in two years is the kind of programme players had in 1886, and he, along with David Warner, will hit the Ashes from the T20 World Cup in Dubai, not the Sheffield Shield at home. Just like 2019, this series will be a pair of highly acclaimed bowling attacks seeing who can better dismantle a couple of batting lineups using fake ID.

However it goes, the main thing we need from here is for time to go into fast-forward. Not just so that Australians in locked-down states and cities can emerge blinking into the world again, which will be nice, but so we can skip through all the banterous tedium that now forms the inevitable Ashes prelude. Once someone is bowling to someone at the Gabba, we can talk about that instead. Aside from occasionally accusing one another of ball-tampering. Or head-butts. Or a deep failing at the heart of our respective cultures. It is the Ashes, baby. Time to do it all again. Maybe. Probably. They will send a text when they are in the car.

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