This first ball of the 2017-18 Ashes series will be delivered on the morning of Thursday Nov 23 at the Gabba in Brisbane, a ground where Australia hasn’t lost since 1988 (they don’t call it the ‘Gabbatoir’ just for the clever pun). The cricket carnival then heads to Adelaide between Dec 2-6 for the inaugural day-night Ashes Test, and just the seventh ever Test under lights. The Perth Test (Dec 14-18) makes history for a different reason — it will be the Ashes’ last appearance at the WACA Ground, 47 years after its first, before sport in Perth shifts to a new home. The Boxing Day Test in Melbourne is one of the highlights of Australia’s sporting calendar, when the 100,000-capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground will be packed to the rafters. And the series culminates in Sydney in the new year (Jan 4-8), when the ‘Pink Test’ fills the Sydney Cricket Ground stands with a sea of rose, coral and fuchsia to raise money for breast cancer charity the McGrath Foundation, honouring Aussie cricket legend Glenn McGrath’s late wife Jane.
With an estimated 30,000 England fans travelling to Australia and huge domestic interest in the Ashes, tickets to Day One in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney are rarer than rocking horse poo, only weeks away from the series commencing. But there are a handful of tickets remaining for the later days across all five venues — prices start at $30, check availability at the Cricket Australia website.
Your best bet might be finding a television and tuning in to Channel Nine, the free-to-air network that has broadcast the cricket in Australia ever since the World Series Cricket war in the late 1970s. Australian cricket legends Shane Warne, Michael Clarke, Mark Taylor, Ian Healy, Bill Lawry, Ian Chappell and Michael Slater are all involved with the Nine broadcast. Radio commentary on the ABC, Australia’s public broadcaster, is also popular. BT Sport will beam the series back to the UK, and it wouldn’t be an England Test match without Jonathan Agnew, Geoffrey Boycott, Phil Tufnell, Michael Vaughan et al in the Test Match Special box for BBC Radio Five Live.
England will start the series without their X-factor, all-rounder and vice-skipper Ben Stokes, who was suspended from the squad pending a police investigation into a violent scuffle on a night out in Bristol in September. Stokes made a name for himself by standing up to the rampant Australians in a badly beaten side in the 2013-14 five-nil whitewash, but it remains unclear what role — if any — he’ll play Down Under this summer.
Stoke’s omission is a big blow for Joe Root’s men, who need all the experience they can get. Ex-captain Alastair Cook is a steadying influence at the top of the order, but current skipper Root — who averages 53.76 over his 60-Test career, and a stellar 60.75 after assuming the captaincy from Cook in February — is struggling to find quality batsmen to accompany him in the middle. England are well served for all-rounders — even in Stokes’ absence, off-spinner Moeen Ali and wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow extend the depth of the batting line-up — and seam bowlers — wily veterans Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad will spearhead the attack — but a huge question mark remains over the callow batsmen.
Australia’s middle order is just as fragile as England’s, with captain Steve Smith entering his first home Ashes series as skipper with an uncertain eleven. Opener David Warner is the most damaging batsman in world cricket on home soil and Smith himself continues to peel off best-since-Bradman figures — the 28-year-old averages a staggering 69.02 as captain — but the rest of the batting order is unproven in the pressure-cooker Ashes arena. The problematic No.6 batting spot is up for grabs, and the wicket-keeping position — contested between out-of-form incumbent Matt Wade, his predecessor Peter Neville and bolters Cam Bancroft and Alex Carey — is also up in the air.
Australia’s bowling stocks give the Australian selectors fewer headaches. Despite missing firebrand quick James Pattinson — whose body broke down with a back injury for the umpteenth time in October — Australia’s pace battery is clearly its strength, especially in friendly conditions at home. Spearhead Mitchell Starc, the metronomic Josh Hazelwood and wunderkind Pat Cummins will lead the assault, supported by cult hero off-spinner Nathan ‘The Goat’ Lyon.