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Australia remain overwhelming Ashes favorites, but captaincy chaos is an unwanted side spectacle

As England faced their racism calculus, Australia had peaked at the right time to secure a T20 World Cup victory that seemed unlikely a fortnight earlier. In the process, they made England – defeated semi-finalists – wait in Dubai for the charter they shared with Australia.

While half the squad was doing this, others were enjoying significant preparation in the Sheffield Shield. James Pattinson has retired, but Jhye Richardson’s form has added to the depth of Australian bowling. The only place to win was n ° 5; Usman Khawaja and Travis Head were the options for an encore, and both have had good starts to the season – Head has had another century today.

The outlier was Tim Paine. Having injured his neck, the start of his season was delayed. His role has become “Tasmanian Breakfast Radio Host”, where – not for the first time – mildly silly comments ruffled the feathers of players and fans outside of Australia. The expectation, however, was that Paine would be fit for selection and run for the draw on December 8 – whether Joe Root was there or not.

Then last Friday, and Paine’s shocking resignation, came. With that came a whiff of chaos, as Australia was without a test captain just 19 days before the Ashes. There was no perfect candidate. David Warner is banned from management for life over the sandpaper scandal.

Steve Smith served his two-year suspension but was a better-served weak captain focusing on his voracious run score. Khawaja or Head are state captains but not some starters. Pat Cummins has so much going for him but would be a bowler captain, which is anathema for Australia – indeed unprecedented for – Australia.

Cummins now seems certain of taking the job, with Smith his deputy, but questions keep coming. What about Paine’s place on the side? He has to prove his fitness, an exercise that continues with his first competitive appearance of the season tomorrow, one day for Tasmania. Alex Carey and Josh Inglis wait backstage.

Beyond the fact that Paine’s presence will create a sort of circus, what the scandal means for the Aussie team’s harmony is unclear. Marcus Harris and Nathan Lyon offered unsurprising support. It could be that the case creates a bunker mentality within the group and frees Paine the cricketer to score a few points.

The flip side is that Candice Warner, Davey’s wife, has taken to the radio to question Cricket Australia’s handling of the case. “They basically say it’s not OK for an Australian cricket captain to send these messages, but it’s OK for an Australian player,” she said. “As the wife of an Australian player it’s a bit worrying and it worries me.”

Warner isn’t the only one questioning CA’s role. The scandal is a reminder that the cultural reset they announced after the sandpapergate was as complete a laundering as the 2013/14 ashes.

AFP via Getty Images

CA rarely makes things easier. Take this series, which they did well to continue. But why the first test in Brisbane, when there are good test sites that can be accessed without requiring quarantine?

And why is the location of the fifth test still unknown? Why do they persist with Perth, which will force players to quarantine themselves again or enter the kind of hard bubble the game has to go through. The series could have started in a non-quarantine state and ended in Brisbane, which will soon open to foreigners.

Those picks mean the two teams don’t get their full reunion until a week before the series, so expect Gabba’s test to be a battle of undercooked people. This is a problem for Australia, which has not played a Test since January (England has played 12 this year), as well as for tourists.

Hopefully the unusual Queensland weather doesn’t disrupt next week’s warm-ups. Australia remain one of the overwhelming favorites, but their build up has become a bit more troubled than it looked a week ago.


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