When – or maybe that’s still if – Australia and England finally take the field in Brisbane on December 8, it will be despite having to overcome some of the greatest obstacles to staging an Ashes series.

The renewal of hostilities, which opened at Melbourne in March 1877, looked in doubt for much of the year because of the pandemic and the emergence of the Omicron variant could yet complicate matters further in a country where Covid regulations differ starkly in different states.

Each team heads into the series with worries of their own. Australia, who retained the urn when the 2019 series in this country was drawn 2-2, remain favourites and were buoyed by winning the T20 World Cup earlier this month.

But the resignation of Test skipper Tim Paine, following a scandal about sex texts he sent to a former female colleague 2017 and which had been hushed up since, plunged their plans into disarray. They will now be led by Pat Cummins – only the second fast bowler to captain Australia, Ray Lindwall having done it once in 1956 – and his deputy is key batsman Steve Smith, himself forced to quit the job more than three years ago after his team were caught ball-tampering.

And despite that T20 success, Australia enter the series seriously undercooked in Test terms, having not played since January, when they were beaten 2-1 on home turf by India.

Given England have played 10 Tests since then, it should give them an advantage – or it would have done if they had not lost six of them and won just two, suffering a pair of series defeats to India along the way. The absence of injured fast bowler Jofra Archer leaves them badly dependent on Mark Wood staying fit to offer a true cutting edge, all the more important given England have often looked toothless in recent times when the ball has not swung or seamed. It does not tend to do much of either down under.

But the unexpected return of Ben Stokes, having missed almost the entire domestic season because of a finger injury and mental health concerns, not only gives England a world-class all-rounder but a healthy slice of self-belief as well. Having been absent for the last tour to Australia in 2017-18, he will be all the keener to make an impact.

The tourists received little help from nature when all but 29 overs of their first warm-up match, due to last three days, were rained off in Brisbane last week. The good news was that England’s likely opening pair, Rory Burns (39no) and Haseeb Hameed (53no), reached 98-0 when the rain closed in on day one of their match against England Lions.

Making a solid start has been rare for England in recent times but the importance of a sound top-order is even greater in Australian conditions. The last time they won down under, in 2010-11, the batting was built around Alastair Cook’s 766 runs over five Tests, ably supported by Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott, which allowed strokemakers Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Matt Prior to flay tiring bowlers later on.

Since that triumph, England have been beaten 5-0 and 4-0 in Australia, harried by Australia’s bowlers and dominated by their batsmen. If Surrey skipper Burns can show the same sort of tenacity as Chris Broad in 1986-87 and John Edrich – a predecessor both as Surrey captain and opener at the Kia Oval – then Joe Root, Stokes, county colleague Ollie Pope and Jos Buttler could yet ensure they return with the Ashes back in their possession.

Pope appears to be competing with Jonny Bairstow for a place in the middle-order but should he play the hard and bouncy pitches on which England must battle to win back the Ashes in Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. The series is being shown by BT Sports.