England v Australia T20Is - Men's
Barren winter blooms into UK tour like no other
The long wait is over for Aaron Finch's Australians, whose long winter will finally come to an end in Southampton on Friday
4 September 2020, 08:39 AM AEST
It's been a quarter of a century since Australia cricket fans endured winter without being warmed by the exploits of at least one of their national teams on the field, somewhere in the world.
Even during the atypical off-season of 1998 – when the only men's team assignment between late April and the start of October was the historic Commonwealth Games tournament in Kuala Lumpur – the women were engaged in a five-ODI, three-Test campaign against England in the UK.
Not since 1995 – when Mark Taylor's men basked in the acclaim of being the first team to win a Test series in the Caribbean for more than two decades by taking a six-month sabbatical from May to November – has Australia's winter cricket calendar been so denuded.
And that was the result of programming rather than pandemic, with the women's outfit enduring a 12-month scheduling hiatus that was sadly typical of their fixturing a generation ago.
But even then, three years before Australia's men's players reached an agreement with administrators that saw them become full-time professionals, the likes of Mark Waugh, Michael Bevan and Michael Kasprowicz spent much of their 1995 break playing with UK counties.
By the time Aaron Finch's men take to the Ageas Bowl to tackle England (minus their parochial fans) in the first of three T20 Internationals on Friday, five months and 22 days will have elapsed since an Australia cricket team was in action.
So sudden and stringent was the shutdown of cricket after COVID19 arrived in Australia last March that the game's elite practitioners were reduced to individual training sessions in their garages, backyards and local parks.
It's only been in the past month or so that many have returned to carefully controlled group practices, and even that has been dependent on their city of domicile.
The severity of that separation from competitive cricket was laid bare by all-rounder Glenn Maxwell who, after scoring 108 from 114 balls in Australia's intra-squad hit-out at Southampton last weekend, revealed he had scarcely raised a bat in anger since the premature end to last summer.
"That's my third hit on turf in the last seven months," said Maxwell, whose Australia season finished earlier than most when he underwent surgery on his left elbow immediately after the KFC Big Bash League final in February.
"Since the BBL final I haven't had a hit really, against any bowlers."
In more recognisable times, Maxwell and his national squad mates would have found fleeting respite from their many and varied playing commitments.
The Australia home summer was to have concluded with the Gillette Series of three ODIs against New Zealand, followed by a three-match T20I hit-out between the neighbours on the other side of the Tasman.
Seventeen Australia players (including Maxwell) were then bound for the lucrative Indian Premier League in April-May, before the Test team undertook a two-match series in Bangladesh after which focus was to turn to the scheduled ICC T20 World Cup in Australia from October-November.
But as was the case for all but the first Australia-New Zealand ODI – played before empty stands at the SCG as lockdowns began to bite – all those proposed events were either postponed or cancelled.
Restrictions on global travel meant Australia's planned ODI series against Zimbabwe – for the nation's Top End during August – was placed on hold while rescheduling of the World Cup in Australia to 2022 ensured projected T20 series against West Indies (in Queensland next month) and India (later in October) also became casualties.
As administrators the world over scrambled to establish biosecurity protocols and travel arrangements that would allow international cricket to re-surface, Cricket Australia and England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) agreed to re-schedule the 2020 white-ball series originally slated for July.
From the very outset, it has proved a tour like no other.
In scenes more closely resembling a medi-vac airlift, a larger-than-usual 21-man playing group prepared for departure by quarantining in their homes before assembling under strict travel protocols in Perth almost two weeks ago.
The group then flew to England (via Colombo and Dubai) in a 76-seat charter plane.
They spent several more days in isolation at Derbyshire's county cricket ground in Derby before entering a similarly strict biosecurity 'bubble' at Southampton where the first of three T20s against England will be played Friday evening (UK time).
“It has been unbelievable," Australia coach Justin Langer said this week.
"We are so thankful to the ECB and to everyone who did the work back home for us to be over here in England.
"The few days we had in Derbyshire were seamless, the flight was seamless (and) besides the rain on the first day of practice (at Hampshire's home ground in Southampton) where we only got 25 overs in … it has worked out brilliantly.
"We had the 25 overs and then a one-day game a couple of days ago, and two T20 games (on Wednesday).
"It is still not perfect preparation in terms of match hardness because we haven’t played for a long time, but in what we’ve had on offer, we couldn’t have had a better preparation.
"We are thankful for everyone who has been incredible here at Hampshire, the wickets were brilliant and the weather is nice here now so it’ll be good to start playing some cricket on Friday night."
It will be the fourth time in as many northern summers that Australia's men's team has toured the UK after contesting the ICC Champions Trophy in 2017, a disastrous 0-5 defeat (in the wake of the sandpaper incident) in 2018 and last year's World Cup-Ashes double.
But this campaign – three T20Is in Southampton followed by three ODIs in Manchester – will bear only haunting resemblance to previous visits.
The size of Australia's touring party is partly attributed to the need to complete full-scale intra-squad warm-up matches, a necessity given the lack of competitive cricket over the preceding five months.
However, it also underscores the realities of professional sport in the COVID19-era where the absence of Australia players in the UK county competition coupled with the inability to fly out injury replacements from home at short notice means all possible contingencies must be covered.
England have proved Australia's master in white-ball cricket on their home turf of late, having won seven of the past eight ODI meetings (including last year's World Cup semi-final) and all but one of the six T20Is stretching back to 2005 when the format was born.
Not only do the hosts have the clear advantage of match readiness having completed Test and limited-overs series against West Indies, Ireland and Pakistan in recent months, they also know what to expect from time already spent inside the rigorous and mentally taxing quarantine zones.
In addition to in-form batting talents such as likely opening pair Jos Buttler and Jonny Bairstow as well as Ireland-born captain Eoin Morgan, England are further boosted by the return of fast-bowling weapon Jofra Archer for his first white-ball international appearances since last year's World Cup final.
Asked what he had made of England's limited-overs form when watching them from his home in Perth over recent weeks, Langer opted for a one-word descriptor that could be equally applied to the health threat posed by coronavirus.
"Dangerous," he said of Australia's historic rivals.
The coffee competition is getting out of hand in Australia's bio-bubble! ☕ #ENGvAUS pic.twitter.com/aykee52zsf— cricket.com.au (@cricketcomau) September 3, 2020
"The way Eoin Morgan plays, it’s exciting to watch, he just comes out and smacks it from ball one.
"They've been the best one-day team in the world for a few years now.
"We came here two years ago and got smashed 5-0, we came here last year and won two out of three games (including a World Cup warm-up game at Southampton) but just didn’t win the big one in the semi-final.
"They are a very good cricket team, well led.
"We know what to expect and we’ll be ready."
Readiness born of a preparation like no other.
2020 Tour of England
Australia's T20 and ODI squad: Aaron Finch (c), Sean Abbott, Ashton Agar, Alex Carey, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Riley Meredith, Josh Philippe, Daniel Sams, Kane Richardson, Steven Smith, Mitchell Starc, Marcus Stoinis, Andrew Tye, Matthew Wade, David Warner, Adam Zampa
England T20I squad: Eoin Morgan (c), Moeen Ali, Jofra Archer, Jonathan Bairstow, Tom Banton, Sam Billings, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Tom Curran, Joe Denly, Chris Jordan, Dawid Malan, Adil Rashid, Mark Wood. Reserves: Liam Livingstone, Saqib Mahmood
England ODI squad: Eoin Morgan (c), Moeen Ali, Jofra Archer, Jonathan Bairstow, Tom Banton, Sam Billings, Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Tom Curran, Adil Rashid, Joe Root, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood. Reserves: Joe Denly, Saqib Mahmood
September 4: 1st T20, Southampton, 3am AEST Sept 5
September 6: 2nd T20, Southampton, 11.15pm AEST
September 8: 3rd T20, Southampton, 3am AEST Sept 9
September 11: 1st ODI, Old Trafford, 10pm AEST
September 13: 2nd ODI, Old Trafford, 10pm AEST
September 16: 3rd ODI, Old Trafford, 10pm AEST