No fans, no form book, no tour games, no trash talk, no grand swooping narrative arcs to be completed – no real idea what might happen next.
There may have been more stripped back, low pulse preludes to an Ashes series than the weeks leading up to Wednesday midnight UK time, and day one at a damp, slightly wary Gabba. But none that spring to mind. And certainly none in the past three decades, the digital years, during which Test cricket’s premium series has become a steroid-fed leisure brand: tourism magnet TV rights beano, not to mention maker of legends, definer of careers, fuel for score-settling books and all the rest.
Well, not this time. Fast-forward to the current Covid-shadowed tour and the architecture of this whole scene feels very different. It’s raining in Brisbane. Australia’s captain is nice. David Warner is no longer the Attack Dog or The Reverend or even the Attack Reverend.
No one, at the time of writing, has accused Joe Root of having the eyes of a frightened baby marmoset, to the extent the most interesting chat coming out of the Australian camp is the suggestion Steve Smith has tinkered very slightly with his grip (“It’s slightly more open”). Frankly, the whole thing may be cancelled tomorrow anyway.
There will be some disquiet at this sense of anti-drama, the absence of that old familiar Ashes tinsel, dug out around this time of year like your favourite homemade papier-mache reindeer. Test cricket seems a more diminished property with every passing month. Things falls apart. The Ashes must hold.
But there is another side to this. Two pop-up teams in the most unforgiving format, with stripped-back plans, no baggage, no weight of expectations, just a punkish, come-as-you-are feel. Welcome to the Ashes lite. It may just turn out to be quite refreshing.
There is a startling swiftness to the schedule, a 42-day yomp around five, possibly four cities, with the full flight-coach-pack-unpack disruption in between.
Take out 25 days of play, plus travel, recovery times, Christmas, the odd moment of glazed and foot-weary family time and there really is nowhere to hide or retrench or refine your game. Press start – then don’t blink until it’s over.
In this context predicting what is about to happen seems a bit pointless. It isn’t hard to picture a scenario where Australia run away with it from day one and take another four or five nil, the whole thing over two weeks into the tour. Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc or – more excitingly – Jhye Richardson could run through England in a session and a half, at any time, on any day.
There is also the possibility England turn up this time and not because there is any real coherence to the team, any sense of masterplans being hatched. But simply because nothing feels set, everyone is undercooked.
The pitches will (we hear) be slow, the air damp, the ball pink in Adelaide. Among their crew of pressed-men and might-still-bes England do also have three higher-level cricketers.
Plus, you can delete the usual migrainous levels of pressure. Winning or not winning the Ashes doe not feel like the most pressing issue facing English cricket.
There has been a slightly hopeful tendency to compare this England tour party to the 1986-87 group, who also arrived with little in the way of form. But there are key differences. That tour spanned 63 days and included three proper warm-up games, by the end of which Ian Botham was already filling the sponsor’s energy drink bottle with lager shandy for the on-fields breaks, the pace bowling had found its range and, internally, there was a quiet sense of momentum.
The most intriguing part is the lack of plans and systems on either side. There is none of the usual fevered planning here, no set shape to be stress-tested.
We remember, for example, the Tall Tour, 2013-14, when England took Steve Finn, Boyd Rankin, Chris Tremlett, Stuart Broad and a small phone mast, forgetting that it was skill and reverse swing that did the job four years earlier.
This time the main seam bowlers are 31, 32, 35 and 39 years old, all subtle variations on the idea of right arm fast-medium. The batting is a rag-bag of hopefuls. Ten players are on their first Ashes tour.
Otherwise, this is a squad full of weird angles. Dawid Malan: classy, elegant, high-grade: but also, well, why? Ollie Pope. Nice, neat lines. Is he actually any good? Do they really need not one, not two but three tall right-arm back of a length 81-85mph seam bowlers? And how about Jos Buttler, the most mindbogglingly talented lukewarm and forgettable Test player England has produced? Pressure off, a new IPL deal in the bag, a first and last chance in Australia. This could be the tour where Buttler nails it.
It is here, with half the places in the team up for grabs, that England have a chance to become interesting. Why not take a few informed gambles? There have been whispers for more than a year that Ben Stokes should bat No 3. And why not? His defensive technique is excellent. The scoreboard will move. It looks better already. Root at four, Malan at five, Jonny Bairstow at six, Buttler seven. There is power there, and unspent ambition.
As for the bowling, why not go all in with the hand you have? Locals say the pitches have got slower, that there will be damp around. Why not just give into it, embrace your destiny and play a full hand of thirtysomething, low-eighties accuracy merchants. Attack with the bat, be stingy with the ball. And while we are at it go after Nathan Lyon, who has barely played in the past 18 months. Why not to ping him back over his head the moment he comes on? These are after all the no-context Ashes. There is a freedom here.
Something will have to change. Because notwithstanding all that brittle optimism the default situation is an Australia win, possibly quite a comfortable one. Their squad has a greater depth of genuine quality. Australia have three good batsmen to England’s two (one on his way back). They have a better pace attack. Their team also looks fun.
Richardson may have to wait, but he bowls a delicious high-pace away swinger. Warner is good again. Usman Khawaja is back. Cameron Green is a thrilling talent, all poise and physical splendour, but starved of the chance to progress in the past year and still, somehow, without a Test wicket despite bowling 88mph 6ft 7in away-swingers. Marnus Labuschagne is still averaging 60. Smith, well, he’s changed that grip you know.
Then there’s the culture issues. One agreeable side of the Tim Paine’s dick-pic implosion saga is that it does mean there will not be any Paine. Cummins is a grownup, an all-time great cricketer in the making and a genuinely magnificent all-round specimen, one of those human-astronaut types who just seem to be breathing a different air.
Cummins versus Root: this is proper, however you cut it, and a reminder, however rushed and sweaty the prep, that this is still the same premium substance.
• This article was amended on 5 December 2021 to correct a misspelling of Usman Khawaja’s surname as “Kawaja”. It was further amended on 6 December 2021 to correct the start time of the first Test.