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Ashes foes march into battle after troubled build-up

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Cricket - Ashes 2019 - Fourth Test - England v Australia - Emirates Old Trafford, Manchester, Britain - September 7, 2019 Australia's Pat Cummins celebrates taking the wicket of England's Joe Root with team mates. Action Images via Reuters/Carl Recine

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MELBOURNE, Dec 3 (Reuters) - When the Australia and England players file out onto the lush grass of the Gabba next week for the first Ashes test, they may feel relief the spotlight has shifted to the cricket after the scandals that plagued their preparations in the lead-up.

English cricket has been rocked by the Yorkshire racism saga, with Azeem Rafiq questioning captain Joe Root for denying he ever bore witness to any problems at the county.

Australia head into the five-test series with a new captain in fast bowler Pat Cummins after Tim Paine stepped down over a 'sexting' scandal that lay dormant for more than three years. read more

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A ball has yet to be bowled but both sides are already bruised and possibly incapable of delivering the thrills of the drawn 2019 series which saw Australia retain the Ashes in England for the first time in nearly two decades.

Neither team are currently world-beaters in tests and each will lean heavily on ageing champions, hoping they can turn back the clock to cover for shortcomings elsewhere.

As holders on home pitches, Australia are strong favourites to retain the urn for a second successive series, a feat not achieved by the nation since 2002/03 when Steve Waugh's side claimed an eighth straight series win.

Having not lost to England in Brisbane since 1986 and in Perth, the venue for the fifth test, since the 1978/79 tour, Australia have reason to feel confident of another home win, four years after the 4-0 cakewalk in the 2017/18 series.

DOUBT SWIRLS

Yet plenty of doubt swirls around the hosts, not least around the new leadership dynamic between Cummins and his vice-captain Steve Smith.

Cummins has pressure to deliver in his usual occupation of bowling, less than a year after Australia's vaunted pacemen were humbled by India during the last home summer.

He and Smith inherit a squad with many of the same queries raised by the 2-1 series defeat.

Senior players, including paceman Mitchell Starc and spinner Nathan Lyon, are under scrutiny after poor returns last summer, while batting mainstays Smith and David Warner are battling perceptions that their best days are behind them.

Though number three Marnus Labuschagne has been solid, Australia's batting looks decidedly shaky.

Neither opener Marcus Harris nor middle-order batter Travis Head have cemented themselves, while uncapped wicketkeeper Alex Carey, who is replacing Paine for at least the first two tests, is unproven.

England will hope to exploit that vulnerability to win a first Ashes series in Australia since 2010/11.

But in reality, their current squad are a far cry from Andrew Strauss's all-conquering outfit.

AGEING BOWLERS

James Anderson, who dominated in 2010/11, is on his fifth Ashes tour at the age of 39, while fellow pace warhorse Stuart Broad is on his fourth.

They will be glad for the inclusion of Ben Stokes, having missed the all-rounder's support in 2017/18.

Jofra Archer's absence due to injury is a major setback, though, given the value of raw pace on Australia's hard wickets.

Root has said England will draw inspiration from India's upset of Australia but he can only dream of the batting talent that the south Asian nation brought Down Under.

Barring Root, not one batsman on England's 17-man squad boasts an average above 40.

Much will hinge on how well England can start at the Gabba, which kicks off the series on Dec. 8, where Australia traditionally set the tone with a thumping first-up win.

Emerging from Brisbane with a draw would be a virtual win for England, and the high likelihood of rain at the Gabba could aid their cause.

They would then hope Anderson and the seamers can do damage with the pink ball in the second test.

A win under lights at Adelaide Oval would prove priceless, and allow England to dare to dream of snatching the series.

After the traditional Boxing Day test in Melbourne and New Year's test in Sydney, Perth is scheduled to host the final match from Jan. 14 but Western Australia's strict COVID-19 rules could force organisers to shift the match to another city.

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Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Ken Ferris

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