Ashes First Test Preview: Pat Cummins makes Australia captain debut as England look to exorcise Gabba demons

Every ball from England’s tour of Australia will be shown live on BT Sport as Joe Root’s side look to win the Ashes Down Under for the first time since 2010/11.

By Callum Davis Published: 7 December 2021 - 10.18am

England's quest to regain The Ashes begins in the evening of Tuesday 7 December as the greatest rivalry in sport resumes Down Under.

Live coverage of the first Test begins from 11pm on BT Sport 1HD as Australia look to retain the urn for a third straight series.

Every ball from all five Test matches will be shown exclusively live on BT Sport as England renew hostilities with Australia in the longest format for the first time since 2019.

With anticipation building, we preview the first Test ahead of what is set to be another enthralling series. 

The 'Gabbatoir' opens its doors for business

Touring England teams are no strangers to hostile welcomes Down Under, but nowhere more so than at The Gabba.

Nicknamed 'The Gabbatoir', the 42,000-capacity stadium holds a special place in the nightmares of former England cricketers with its bouncy track and belligerent Brisbane patrons.

It's also where the series gets under way late on Tuesday evening and the reception for Joe Root’s team is likely to be even more fierce than usual as Australia hosts Test cricket for the first time since their series defeat to India last January.

Aside from the inevitable abuse from the stands, England will be looking to overcome a woeful recent history at the famous ground.

England's last Ashes win at The Gabba

Root was not even born the last time England tasted victory at Australia’s fortress back in 1986.

Since then it has been a tale of woe including six heavy defeats and two draws.

Indeed, Root’s previous visit as captain four years ago ended in a 10-wicket thrashing, but the Yorkshireman is optimistic his side can end their Gabba hoodoo with a series-defining win.

“Victory would absolutely set us up for the rest of the series and it’s a great opportunity,” he said.

“This group of players, not that long ago, went to Cape Town where we’ve not won a Test for a long period of time and off the back of a performance there won the series.

“I feel like we have been able to do that around the world and this is an opportunity to do that here.

"Obviously conditions are slightly different to home, at this venue in particular with that extra bit of bounce, but we have prepared as well as we can for that. If we manage that well we should give a really good account of ourselves and start well.”

A second new dawn for Australia

Australia will be grateful for the opportunity to focus on cricket after a tumultuous build up to the first Test that has been marred by scandal.

Ashes preparations were rocked by Tim Paine's decison to step down as captain over a historical investigation into sexually explicit texts to a female colleague.

Paine was tasked with restoring Australia's tarnished image following the ball-tampering scandal that cost Steve Smith his position as captain, but his tenure has ended in similarly controversial fashion.

With Australian cricket in desperate need of another refresh, Tuesday will mark a new era as Pat Cummins makes history as the country's first ever full-time pace bowling captain.

As Cummins prepares to take charge of his first match as captain, the hosts sought to take the pressure off their rookie leader by naming their XI three days ahead of time.

The major change from Australia's last Test outing sees Travis Head get the nod over Usman Khawaja in the middle order.

Cummins said he hopes Head's record in England in previous Ashes tours will hold him in good stead for the first Test.

He said: “It was a tight one. They are both really good options. Experience is great from Ussie and we feel really lucky to have that in the squad, but Trav’s been playing a lot for us the last couple of years.

“He’s gone away and he’s churned out runs in England, here in Australia, and we feel like he’s really ready to go.”

Meanwhile Mitchell Starc saw off stiff competition from in-form seamer Jhye Richardson to retain his place.

The decision to put Cummins in charge of the side has drawn plenty of intrigue and he indicated he would not be taking the new ball as he gets to grips with the role.

“No, is the honest answer. I probably won’t be first up but in recent years we’ve been quite fluid depending on the situation,” he said.

“I haven’t made up my mind but I think Josh (Hazlewood) and Starcy will open up with me not far behind. That might change. If it’s late in the day and there’s only a couple of overs I might feel like I want to have a crack but it’s pretty fluid.”

How Cummins copes with the challenge of combining leadership with the demands of quick bowling will be one of the most intriguing sub-plots of the series.

Stokes returns with spotlight on England's batting

Whereas Australia named their starting XI already, England are still weighing up some key selection decisions.

England's batting will once again be placed under the microscope as they prepare to enter the Brisbane pressure cooker that is the Gabba. 

The tourists have lost back-to-back Test series against New Zealand and India this year and middle-order batting collapses have become an all-too familiar sight for England fans.

Root has been England's standout performer with the bat in recent years, amassing 1455 runs in his last 12 Test matches, a record that includes six centuries and one fifty.

Opener Rory Burns is the side's second-highest run-scorer in Tests this year with just 479 and there are familiar concerns that England's batting line up could wilt in the face of Australia's fast-bowling firepower.

Ben Stokes' return to international cricket is a huge boost to England's chances of wrestling the urn from Australia's grasps.

The all-rounder was not named in the original England squad having taken an indefinite break to focus on his mental health and recovery from a fractured finger, but his inclusion has changed the complexion of the series.

The all-rounder produced one of the greatest Test innings in history when the sides last faced each other, smashing an unforgettable 135 not out to hand England an unlikely victory and take the 2019 series to a decider.

Australia head coach Justin Langer admits he still has “nightmares” Stokes’ Headingley heroics, but insists he is pleased to see him return to the Test stage.

“It’s great for the game of cricket that Ben Stokes is playing Ashes cricket,” said Langer.

“We all love it as an Australian summer and it probably wouldn’t be the same without the best players playing. It’s nice to see and hopefully his health is good. We welcome him here because he is one of the superstars of the game.”

Stokes' return means Ollie Pope pipped Jonny Bairstow for the final place in England's middle order, with head coach Chris Silverwood choosing Pope’s promise over Bairstow’s experience.

England’s most significant selection decision however has been the exclusion of record wicket-taker James Anderson for the first Test.

The 39-year-old has been passed fit but stood down as a precaution, spending the next five days fine tuning in the nets ahead of the Adelaide day/night Test.

Anderson was always unlikely to be an ever-present for the five Tests squeezed in across six weeks, but his exclusion for the first Test has come as somewhat of a surprise.

Team-mate Jos Buttler has backed the most prolific seamer in history to still play a significant part across the series however.

“Jimmy’s not going to play but he is fit. It’s just precautionary,” he said.

“It’s obviously a very long series and we want a guy like that to be available to play as much of a part as possible. Jimmy’s been bowling and bowling well – I faced him in the nets that’s been a great challenge going into a Test match.

“It seems that age is just a number for Jimmy at the minute. He’s in fantastic shape, his skills are brilliant as always and he still seems to be trying to improve and learn new things.

“That hunger doesn’t seem to be wavering at all, he still gets just as grumpy if he bowls a bad ball and his competitiveness is incredibly high in anything he does, let alone on a cricket field. I certainly see him wanting to continue as long as he can and there doesn’t feel like there’s anything in the way of him doing that at the moment.”

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