Intensity ready to ignite as England aims to reclaim Ashes
The Ashes would have come to nothing without a bit of friction.
It's the heat of the contest between England and its distant former convict colony, Australia, which makes cricket's oldest regular international series also the most storied.
Australia holds the famous urn after a 4-0 series win Down Under in 2017-18, but England is still on a high just a couple of weeks after winning its first ever World Cup title in the one-day format and hasn't lost an Ashes series on home soil since 2001.
The final buildup this week to the five-test series started out dryly, with a cheeky reminder at Edgbaston when the Australians arrived to see some details of their World Cup semifinal loss to England still on the scoreboard.
It was taken in good humor, perhaps a sign of the more cordial approach to the game taken recently by Australian cricketers in the wake of a cheating scandal in South Africa last year that led to harsh sanctions for then captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and opening bat Cameron Bancroft.
"It is weird Aussies trying to be nice to you," New Zealand-born allrounder Ben Stokes, who was the star of England's dramatic World Cup final win over New Zealand and is vice-captain of the test team, said of the Ashes preliminaries. But, "there is always something that happens between teams in Ashes series and I don't think this will be any different. Both teams are desperate to win, both sets of players are desperate to perform.
"It's where you are scrutinized or criticized more ... everyone knows that," he added. "So I can assure you there will be some sort of theater that goes on out there."
Smith and Warner returned from 12-month bans to play roles in the Australian one-day squad's attempt to defend the World Cup, which ended in that semifinal loss at Edgbaston on July 11. Bancroft had a shorter ban despite being a key figure in the so-called Sandpapergate, but has taken a longer route back to the national team, and a likely recall for the first test.
National daily The Australian prefaced the trio's expected test return with the nuanced headline: "Getting the banned back together."
Bancroft played county cricket in England while the Australian ODI team contested the World Cup, and topped the scoring in a low-scoring intra-squad trial at Southampton last week that selectors treated as a form guide for the test XI.
South African broadcasters caught Bancroft scratching the surface of the match ball with sandpaper during a test in Cape Town last March — part of clumsy plot to alter the condition of the ball for Australia's bowlers. The backlash in Australia was fierce, and the punishments the harshest ever meted out for such an incident.
England's famous Barmy Army of fans has promised plenty of banter directed at the Aussies but with grizzled Ashes veterans Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting in the coaching set up and Steve Waugh on board as a mentor, the visiting team is unlikely to be unnerved.
"Steven and David have had a pretty good dress rehearsal during the World Cup and I thought they were brilliant in how they responded to it," Langer said. "They kept smiling their way through it and it will be no different in the Ashes series."
Langer said he was proud of how the banned players had returned to the international scene, admitting it "would be a great story" if Bancroft returns to the top order with Warner and Smith and likely Usman Khawaja. Surprisingly, there's more conjecture over the selections in the pace bowling group with the return of James Pattinson putting pressure on Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood.
The dust had almost settled on the Ashes by 2005, with Australia winning eight consecutive series from 1989 to 2002-03. But a freak injury to then Australian pace spearhead Glenn McGrath helped change the course of history.
McGrath, player of the match in Australia's series-opening win at Lord's, injured his ankle in the warm-up before the second test at Edgbaston after stepping on a ball, and missed the match. England hung on to win by two runs and went on to win the series, ending Australia's 17-year domination.
Jimmy Anderson, who had made his test debut but missed that 2005 series, is still around to lead an England attack expected to exploit the conditions and reverse swing that is more prominent with the Duke balls.
The 37-year-old Anderson, part of three winning Ashes campaigns, is readying to rejoin an England team coming off a stuttering win over Ireland at Lord's last week. Stuart Broad took seven wickets in that match as the English bowlers rallied to avoid a major post-World Cup letdown.