England skipper Joe Root has declared himself ready for an Ashes series that will “define my captaincy”.
Statistically Root is already his country’s most successful Test leader, overtaking mentor Michael Vaughan in the summer when he oversaw a 27th victory over India at Headingley.
But he has yet to get the better of Australia, having suffered a 4-0 defeat in his previous campaign Down Under followed by a 2-2 draw in 2019 which saw the tourists retain the urn.
So when Root steps out for the first Test at The Gabba on Wednesday, he knows his very reputation is on the line.
“Of course it will define my captaincy, I’m not naive enough to think it won’t,” he said at a series launch that saw him come face-to-face with his latest opposite number, Pat Cummins.
“If you look how hard it’s been for English captains and English teams (to win in Australia) over the years, it has been something which doesn’t happen very often.
“But what a great opportunity. I’m very excited about it and can’t wait for the series to get going.”
The numbers do make uneasy reading. England have triumphed just once behind enemy lines in the last eight trips, losing nine of their last 10 Tests and drawing the other.
The standout success of 2010-11, when Sir Andrew Strauss fronted a famous 3-1 win, accounts for half of their Test victories in Australia over the past 30 years.
1st Test: Dec 8-12 (Brisbane)
2nd Test: Dec 16-20 (Adelaide, D/N)
3rd Test: Dec 26-30 (Melbourne)
4th Test: Jan 5-9 (Sydney)
5th Test: Jan 14-18 (Perth TBC)
For Root, that historical adversity is the perfect backdrop to do something special – not just for him as a captain but for each of his team-mates.
Asked if his squad had what it takes to meet the challenge ahead, he said: “What better stage to really grab a series and make an announcement on the international stage? To say, ‘I’m an Ashes player and I want to live in the history of this great rivalry’. That carrot is there for everyone.”
While Australia have decided to go on the front foot with team selection, naming their XI three days early and confirming spots for Mitchell Starc and Travis Head, England are biding their time.
The kick-off event, which included a giant inflatable Ashes urn and a few blasts of pyrotechnic flames to set the mood, saw Root flanked by pace bowler Mark Wood and batter Ollie Pope.
Both men are hopeful, but not certain, of making the cut for the series opener. Wood’s extra venom makes him an attractive option at a venue known for its lively surfaces, but a poor weather forecast and an unusually green pitch means swing and seam could be equally useful weapons.
“Obviously this place, they keep telling us it’s renowned for pace bowling here, so I hope I can get a game,” said Wood.
“Hopefully if I get the nod I’ll try and perform well. It’s about not bowling too short, that’s maybe where you can get sucked in. It’s all right saying the right things now but when you’re out there and you see the first one fly through it’s like, ‘Oh, here we go’.”
Pope, meanwhile, is involved in a straight head-to-head with the more experienced Jonny Bairstow to complete England’s top six. Should he get the nod, Pope will be looking to offer Australian assistant coach Michael Di Venuto a reminder of the talent he helped nurture during their time together at Surrey.
“I worked closely with Diva, he was there the first three years of my professional career as head coach and batting coach,” said Pope.
“He gave me a lot of confidence, he really backed me as a cricketer. To have him rate you, like he did back then, was a great confidence booster. He had a big influence on me and gave me that confidence in that Surrey team to bed in in that middle order, which got me a go with England. I owe a lot to him but I doubt he’ll be giving too much away if I catch up with him before the game.”