England's Jack Leach has said Ben Stokes' return to the squad is a "great boost" ahead of the start of the Ashes series in Australia.

Stokes has not played competitively since July and was initially omitted from England's squad as he recovered from a second operation on a broken finger and took a break to protect his mental wellbeing, but the all-rounder was subsequently added to the travelling party.

Stokes famously partnered Leach in a last-wicket stand of 76 to dramatically beat the Aussies in the third Test at Headingley in 2019.

"Obviously having Stokesy back is a great boost for all of us," Leach said. "Some of the things he's done in the past, you know, he's such an important player for us.

"In terms of the balance, it really helps things out, and it's probably good news for the spin department.

"The wickets aren't necessarily going to be really spin-friendly, but I think spin has as a big part to play in Ashes series where England have been successful.

"The spinners have got a big part to play. So, yeah, I'm hopeful I can be the guy and play that role, definitely."

On how Stokes has reintegrated into training and the squad, Leach added: "Luckily, I haven't had to face him in the nets. But yeah, he's looking really good.

"He's fit back into the group brilliantly. It's great to have him back around.

"He's been brilliant and he's such a team man. I think the group is only better for having him in it. He brings experience, I think he really brings the boys together, so that's been really good.

"He's looking good bowling and batting. I've bowled at him and he doesn't block too many balls from the spinners, so yeah, he's looked good."

Leach is hopeful of playing a part in the upcoming series, and admitted to regularly watching his Australian counterpart Nathan Lyon to pick up tips and tricks to improve his own bowling.

"I'm preparing to play, definitely. Like I do for every series that I'm involved with," he added. "For me, the best way to go about it, obviously is to try to prepare to play, and then obviously be really disappointed if I'm not.

"For years I've watched Nathan Lyon, and he's very impressive how he goes about his business. Just how strong his stock ball is and on wickets that don't necessarily offer a lot spin-wise, I think he's found ways to extract bounce and dip. So a lot over spin from him, and I think those are the kind of things I've been trying to add in.

"You take little bits from everyone you play against. I was in India looking at Axar Patel, [Ravi] Ashwin and seeing what I can take from them. So you're always doing that.

"But I think it's important not to get too caught up in that and also just stick to your strengths as well, and know that you're playing at this level for a reason."

England all-rounder Ben Stokes has declared himself "fit and hungry for a big series" ahead of the first Ashes Test against Australia.

Joe Root's side get their campaign started on December 8 in Brisbane and will be boosted by the return of their star all-rounder Stokes.

The 30-year-old has not played competitively since July and was initially omitted from England's squad as he recovered from a second operation on a broken finger and took a break to protect his mental wellbeing.

But Stokes was subsequently added to the travelling party in October as he assured he was ready to make a comeback for the tour and first Test at The Gabba.

Stokes, who averages 38.37 against Australia, offered England a scare when he took a blow to the forearm in a net session last week before Root confirmed the Durham man was fit. 

With just a week to go before the two old foes do battle once more, Stokes is relishing the opportunity to take on Justin Langer's side.

 

"Don't call it a comeback," Stokes posted on Instagram alongside a video of him training with bat and ball on Wednesday.

"Spent some time testing out the finger with [Adidas] last month.

"Two months ago, I couldn't hold a bat. With one week to go till the first Test, I'm fit and hungry for a big series Down Under!"

Michael Vaughan remains under contract with the BBC, who "expect to work" with the former England captain again after standing him down from their Ashes coverage following Azeem Rafiq's racism allegations.

Vaughan was named in a report this month investigating Rafiq's claims of institutional racism at Yorkshire, but has repeatedly and categorically denied the allegations.

The 47-year-old, who played for Yorkshire between 1993 and 2009, allegedly told a group of team-mates in 2009 there were "too many of you lot, we need to do something about it".

Those claims were corroborated by then Yorkshire player Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and current England white-ball specialist Adil Rashid.

Vaughan has since been stood down from his BBC Radio 5 Live Show before being removed from the broadcaster's Ashes coverage due to his involvement in a "significant story" representing a "conflict of interest".

The BBC reiterated their stance on Wednesday, as they informed that Vaughan – who led England to Ashes glory in 2005 – would play no role in their upcoming coverage, though they look set to work with him in the future.

"We're in regular contact with Michael and have had positive conversations with him in recent days," read a statement from the BBC.

"Our contributors are required to talk about relevant issues, so Michael's involvement in a story of such significance means it's not possible for him to be part of our Ashes coverage or wider cricket coverage at the moment.

"We're pleased with how our conversations are going and expect to work with Michael again in the future. He remains on contract to the BBC."

Vaughan said after the BBC's decision he was "very disappointed not to be commentating on the Ashes" but added he was looking forward to working on the series for Fox Sports in Australia.

Jos Buttler insists he has "nothing to lose" as England prepare for their Ashes battle with Australia.

Captain Joe Root's side begin their quest for glory on December 8 in Brisbane as they look to inflict a blow on Australia, who recently enjoyed T20 World Cup success in the United Arab Emirates.

Buttler, who is England's vice-captain and wicket-keeper in the longest format, has never played a Test match Down Under and averages just 20.50 in 18 red-ball innings against Australia – only against South Africa does he average fewer runs.

But the 31-year-old intends to embrace the fearless approach that served him so well at the T20 World Cup, where he bludgeoned 269 runs at an average of 89.66.

"I feel like I have nothing to lose, to be honest," Buttler told reporters at Tuesday's virtual news conference.

"It's sort of been a disjointed year, the one just gone. Some good form and some bad form and in the year before as well.

"But I certainly have nothing to lose. I come here and it's the first time I'm experiencing an Ashes series [in Australia] so I'm fully determined to enjoy all the challenges that throws up.

"I'm excited to experience it: the good, the bad, and I'm sure the highs and lows along the way.

"As a player at the minute I'm trying to bring a fearless approach and to truly try and embrace the opportunity.

"I sort of feel like I'm in that stage in my career with nothing to lose, but to give my best, and I know when I get to somewhere near my best that's going to be pretty good."

The Ashes has already been hitting the headlines with Australia captain Tim Paine stepping down to take a break away from cricket for mental health reasons following a lewd-texting scandal.

Pat Cummins takes the leadership role as the fast bowler becomes Australia's 47th Test captain, and Buttler claims whoever can ignore off-field issues the best will succeed.

"Around the Ashes there's always certain things that go on. The guys that can sort of park off-field issues or deal with the distractions an Ashes series throws up, and perform well when the ball is being delivered, is the team that's going to play best," he said.

Despite having not played a Test match in Australia before, Buttler believes he can call upon white-ball experiences to compete against Cummins' new side.

"I've not played a red-ball game out here, bar some Lions cricket a number of years ago," he said.

"I've been to Australia quite a few times and played ODIs, T20s and the Big Bash as well.

"So familiarity with some conditions is something I can dip into and hopefully not be surprised by. But I think the challenge always as a player is to adapt to any conditions that are in front of you and adapt quickly.

"But certainly, I will try to dip into that experience, and I'm in my early 30s now so have played quite a bit of cricket and hopefully know what to expect."

Joe Root believes that England's four-day warm-up game against England Lions in Brisbane provides his side with an opportunity to get ahead of Australia in their Ashes preparations.

Jos Buttler, Mark Wood, Jonny Bairstow, Dawid Malan and Chris Woakes are finally available to participate again after 14 days in quarantine following their involvement in the T20 World Cup.

Australia's preparations have hardly been smooth. Six players in their squad were involved in the T20 World Cup success in the United Arab Emirates, while Tim Paine resigned as captain due to a sexting scandal before subsequently taking an indefinite break from cricket, meaning he is out of the series.

Pat Cummins, one of the players to lead Australia to glory in the shortest format earlier this month, has taken over as captain.

While poor weather conditions cut England's initial three-day practice match short, Root is hoping a high-intensity meeting with the Lions will set the tone for the Test series, which begins in Brisbane on December 8.

"There's a lot of people that will want to prove things, and will want to show that they deserve an opportunity for that first Test match," Root told reporters.

"This is a really good chance for us to get ahead of things, maybe get ahead of Australia in terms of preparation and game-time ahead of the series, and it would be silly for us to just cosy our way through the four days.

"It's been unusual. Having spent a period of time in quarantine and training within that quarantine phase, and then coming to Brisbane.

"We haven't had that three-day game, as we would have liked, but it was always going to be the case that tomorrow was really the first day as a squad that we would get together, with those World Cup guys joining us.

"So we always knew that this next phase was going to be the most crucial part, in terms of getting tight, getting clear and readying ourselves, and that's going to be the real test for us.

"We want that intensity to be as high as we can, as close to the Test matches as we can, and I expect it to be very competitive," Root added.

"The quality of the players will be there from both teams and, because of the lack of preparation that we've had in that previous three-day game, having that extra bit of flexibility to make sure we can get as many guys what they need throughout these four days is going to be crucial.

"But whether you play those games in your mind a little bit more, visualise a little bit more, it's really important you find different ways of making sure that, when that first ball comes down at the Gabba, we're in the best place possible."

England are looking to regain the urn after a drawn series in 2019 saw Australia retain the Ashes for the first time since 2002-03.

Managing director of the England men's cricket team Ashley Giles believes second chances are key to solving the racism crisis following Azeem Rafiq's allegations.

Rafiq suffered racial harassment and bullying while at Yorkshire, which was eventually brought to light and taken in front of a parliamentary select committee on November 16.

He also accused Yorkshire and England of being institutionally racist, while Michael Vaughan has been stood down from his BBC Radio 5 Live show and the BBC's upcoming Ashes coverage amid Rafiq's allegations.

Vaughan, who allegedly said there were "too many of you lot" towards Asian Yorkshire players, has repeatedly strongly denied the allegations and recently apologised to Rafiq for the "hurt he has gone through".

Former England spinner Giles, who played alongside Vaughan in the 2005 Ashes win, believes people must be offered a second chance and an opportunity to educate themselves for cricket to move forward.

Asked specifically about Vaughan during a news conference, Giles responded: "I can't comment on what the BBC should do with one of their employees. But I think tolerance is really important.

"We all do make mistakes and we will again. But we have to be able to tolerate, educate and rehabilitate otherwise people aren't going to open up and share their experiences and learn.

"Does zero tolerance mean we shouldn't accept discrimination and racism? Absolutely. But not giving people second chances, I'm not sure that's a healthy way forward for us because it's certainly not going to bring people forward to either share their positive or negative experiences or even bring people forward to say, 'I just don't know – I don’t know how to react in this environment', or what to say.

"We all know that this can be a bit of a minefield. Even the language we use around this area almost changes by the month. 

"So for me we've got to educate more, we've got to call it out in the dressing room much more effectively if we see it because perhaps all of us in the past – and I'm not just talking about cricket – have let things go. 

"We've got to be prepared to call them out and by that I don't mean we kick chairs and tables over and start a fight. 

"We just make it very clear that those sorts of behaviours aren't right in our dressing rooms or environments and actually in all workplaces because, although cricket has an opportunity to do something very strong, I don't believe for one minute these same issues don't exist in society. 

"So I think it’s a collective responsibility for all of us to do something about this."

Joe Root's England side are already well into their preparations for the first Ashes Test in Australia on December 8 at the Gabba.

While aware of the boisterous crowds and lively occasions an Ashes Test can be, Giles insisted he has given his backing for Root to remove his players from the field should his team-mates be abused based on their nationality or race.

"We know crowds can be lively here – I've experienced that myself as a player," he added as he spoke from Australia.

"But I'd certainly trust Joe Root to do what is right on the field. If he chose to bring the team into the middle of the field and stop the game while that was investigated, then absolutely. 

"I don't think any of our players should be subject to any abuse actually but discrimination and racism particularly."

Pat Cummins will skipper Australia in the upcoming Ashes against rivals England after being confirmed as the country's new Test captain.

Cummins is the first fast bowler to captain Australia's men's Test team on a full-time basis after Tim Paine sensationally stood down last week, having been embroiled in a sexting scandal.

Paine had taken over as Australia skipper from Steve Smith in the wake of the sandpaper scandal during the South Africa Test tour in 2018 but he is now set to miss the Ashes altogether after taking a leave of absence from all forms of cricket for the foreseeable future".

The top-ranked bowler in Test cricket, Cummins will have Smith as his vice-captain as Australia turn their attention to the December 8 Ashes opener in Brisbane.

"I am honoured to accept this role ahead of what will be a massive Ashes summer," Cummins said in a statement on Friday.

"I hope I can provide the same leadership Tim [Paine] has given the group in the past few years.

"With Steve and I as captains, a number of very senior players in this squad and some great young talent coming through we are a strong and tightly knit group.

"This is an unexpected privilege which I am very grateful for and am very much looking forward to."

Australia star Smith returns to the leadership group after he served a two-year ban from holding any leadership role in Australian cricket following the ball-tampering saga three years ago.

Smith was hit with a 12-month suspension for his role in the scandal.

"I am pleased to return to the leadership of the team and look forward to helping and assisting Pat in any way I can," Smith said in a statement as Australia prepare to host England, starting at the Gabba next month.

"Pat and I have played together for a long time, so we know our respective styles well.

"We are also great friends, as is the whole group. As a team, we want to play good, positive cricket and also really enjoy each other's company.

"There are exciting times ahead as we focus on the Ashes and beyond."

Tim Paine is set to miss Australia's upcoming Ashes series against England after Cricket Tasmania announced he is taking a leave of absence from all forms of cricket "for the foreseeable future".

The 36-year-old stepped down from his role as Australia's Test captain last week over an historical investigation into lewd texts sent to a former Cricket Tasmania colleague in 2017.

Paine received the full backing of his team-mates and was still in Australia's Ashes squad to face England, with the first Test scheduled to begin on December 8.

However, Paine has pulled out of Tasmania's one-day match against Western Australia on Friday and is now expected to be out of contention for the Ashes series.

A statement released by Cricket Tasmania on Friday read: "Following discussions over the last 24 hours, Tim Paine has advised Cricket Tasmania that he will be taking a leave of absence from all forms of cricket for the foreseeable future.

"Tim's decision makes him unavailable for selection for today's Marsh One-Day Cup match against Western Australia. His place in the squad will be taken by Charlie Wakim.
 
"Cricket Tasmania will continue to support Tim and his family both professionally and personally over the summer."

Paine's manager James Henderson added in a Twitter post that he is worried about the veteran wicketkeeper's mental state, as well as his wife Bonnie after details of the scandal became public a week ago.

"Confirming that @tdpaine36 is stepping away from cricket for an indefinite mental health break," Henderson posted.  

"We are extremely concerned for his and Bonnie's well-being and will be making no further comment at this time."

Paine underwent neck surgery in September before returning to action for Tasmania's second XI against South Australia earlier this week.

Pat Cummins and Steve Smith have reportedly been interviewed by Cricket Australia (CA) amid ongoing speculation the pair will step in as captain and vice-captain respectively.

Nathan Lyon insisted "the best gloveman in the world" Tim Paine must play for Australia after the wicketkeeper resigned as captain over inappropriate behaviour.

Paine stepped down from his Test captaincy role last Friday over a historical investigation into lewd texts sent to a former Cricket Tasmania colleague in 2017.

The 36-year-old, who at the time was found not to have breached Cricket Australia's conduct code and remained captain, is still in Australia's Ashes squad to face England, though a new leader is yet to be announced.

Batter Marcus Harris previously stated Paine has "got all the support of the players" and Lyon has echoed that sentiment towards the wicketkeeper, who was appointed captain in 2018 following Steve Smith's ball-tampering scandal ban.

"I can 100 per cent guarantee he has the full support of the Australian changeroom," Lyon told reporters as Australia prepare for the first Ashes Test on December 8.

"I don't see him as a distraction at all. Come the Gabba Test match and throughout the whole series, we are professional sportspeople, and we will go out and do our job.

"Tim made a mistake, he's owned it, for me that shows great courage to be honest. Tim has got my full support. I am looking forward to catching up as soon as we get out of quarantine.

"In my eyes, Tim is the best gloveman in the country, in the world.

"The selectors said they were going to pick the best available XI and in my eyes Tim Paine is the best keeper in the world. I want him. This is very selfish, from a bowler's point of view, I want the best gloveman behind the stumps."

Off-spinner Lyon and wicketkeeper Paine have formed a strong partnership for Australia but failed to combine for a single wicket against India in the Test series loss last time out.

Since then, Paine has undergone neck surgery in September before returning to action for Tasmania's second XI against South Australia.

Pat Cummins and Steve Smith have reportedly been interviewed by Cricket Australia amid ongoing speculation the pair will step in as captain and vice-captain respectively, much to Lyon's excitement.

"You have a bowler's mindset and a batter's mindset rather than two batters; they can come together and really come up with some good guidance," Lyon said. "I am excited by the fact we are potentially going to have a bowler as captain."

Australia will head to the Gabba with added confidence as well after their T20 World Cup win in the United Arab Emirates, and Lyon claimed there is still a buzz around the camp despite Paine's resignation.

"The mood is incredible," he said. "On the back of the boys winning the World Cup, there are only nine guys here who were part of that, but the staff too, there is an unbelievable feeling in the Australian cricket changerooms right now.

"Our preparation is flying along. I'm ready to go."

Michael Vaughan has been stood down from the BBC's coverage of the Ashes due to "a conflict of interest" amid recent allegations of racism made by ex-Yorkshire team-mate Azeem Rafiq.

The former England captain was this month named in a report investigating Rafiq's claims of institutional racism at Yorkshire.

Vaughan, who played for Yorkshire from 1993 to 2009 and led England to Ashes glory in 2005, allegedly said to a group of Asian team-mates there were "too many of you lot, we need to do something about it".

Rafiq's version of events have been supported by Adil Rashid and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, but Vaughan has strongly denied the allegations made against him.

The BBC withdrew Vaughan from his Radio 5 Live show three weeks ago and the corporation has now confirmed the 47-year-old – who first joined their radio team as a summariser in 2009 – will not form part of their upcoming Ashes coverage.

"While he is involved in a significant story in cricket, for editorial reasons we do not believe that it would be appropriate for Michael Vaughan to have a role in our Ashes team or wider coverage of the sport at the moment," said a BBC statement.

"We require our contributors to talk about relevant topics and his involvement in the Yorkshire story represents a conflict of interest."

Vaughan is also contracted to commentate for Australia's Fox network for the five-Test series, which begins in Brisbane on December 8.

In a statement made earlier this month, Vaughan said: "I categorically deny saying the words attributed to me by Azeem Rafiq and want to restate this publicly because the 'you lot' comment simply never happened.

"It is extremely upsetting that this completely false accusation has been made against me by a former team-mate, apparently supported by two other players.

"I have been in contact with the six other players from that team and not one of them has any recollection of the remark being made."

Marcus Harris insists Tim Paine has the full backing of his Australia team-mates after the wicketkeeper stepped down as Test captain.

Paine resigned as Australia's skipper in the longest format last week due to the emergence of a lewd text exchange with a former Cricket Tasmania colleague back in 2017.

At the time, Paine was found not to have breached Cricket Australia's code of conduct and remained as Test captain, having taken up the position in 2018 following Steve Smith's demotion in light of the sandpaper ball-tampering scandal.

Paine will remain involved with the Australia squad, having been named in the selection to face England, though a new captain is yet to be announced.

Tasmania chairman Andrew Gaggin hit out at CA's treatment of Paine and while Harris revealed the Australia squad were shocked, he says there is full belief that Paine will play a key role in their attempts to retain the Ashes.

"People were obviously a bit shocked but we've got a lot of good leaders around our group," Harris told reporters.

"It's not ideal but someone's going to have to step up and lead from the front.

"Painey will still be around and can still show leadership in many different ways but we're looking forward to getting into camp and getting on with it.

"I think you'd probably still argue that he's still the best gloveman in the country.

"I know he's got all the support of the players and like I said, all that other stuff is up to people above me."

The treatment of Tim Paine has been the worst experienced by an Australia Test captain for over 50 years, according to Cricket Tasmania's chairman.

The 36-year-old stood down from the Australian Test captaincy having been embroiled in a lewd text message scandal from 2017, which was investigated by Cricket Australia (CA) and Cricket Tasmania the following year.

At the time, Paine was found not to have breached CA's code of conduct and remained as Test captain, having taken up the position in 2018 following Steve Smith's demotion in light of the sandpaper ball-tampering scandal.

An emotional Paine made his resignation announcement on Friday after learning the messages were to be revealed publicly, and Tasmania chairman Andrew Gaggin has questioned his treatment. Paine plays domestic cricket for Tasmania.

"The treatment afforded to the Australian Test captain by Cricket Australia has been appalling," Gaggin said. "It is clear that the anger amongst the Tasmania cricket community and general public is palpable.

"At a time when Cricket Australia should have supported Tim, he was evidently regarded as dispensable. The treatment is the worst since Bill Lawry over 50 years ago."

Lawry, who was sacked as captain ahead of the final Test of the 1970-71 Ashes series, found out about it through the media.

Cricket Australia chair Richard Freudenstein and CEO Nick Hockley addressed media on Saturday and stressed they were not in their current positions at the time of the initial investigation, thus were not across the rationale behind the decisions made.

Freudenstein said: "While I cannot speak about the original decision-making in 2018, what I can say is that faced with the same circumstances, and with the benefit of all relevant information about this matter, Cricket Australia would not make the same decisions today.

"I acknowledge that the decision clearly sent the wrong message to the sport, to the community and to Tim – that this kind of behaviour is acceptable and without serious consequences. The role of Australia captain must be held to the highest standards."

At the time of the investigation, David Peever was CA chair and James Sutherland was the organisation's CEO.

Freudenstein added: "A decision was made in 2018 and that decision was final. The details weren't known to anyone who've been on the board since that stage."

Cricket Australia (CA) has admitted it made a mistake in its handling of 2018 investigation into the Tim Paine sexting scandal which led to his resignation from the Test captaincy.

Paine stood down the Australian Test captaincy on Friday having been embroiled in a lewd text message scandal from 2017, which was investigated by CA and Cricket Tasmania in 2018.

At the time, Paine was found not to have breached CA's Code of Conduct and remained in the role as Test captain, having taken up the position earlier that year following Steve Smith's demotion in light of the sandpaper scandal.

CA chair Richard Freudenstein and CEO Nick Hockley addressed the media on Saturday and stressed they were not in their current positions at the time of the investigation, thus were not across the rationale behind the decisions made but said with hindsight they were a mistake.

"Neither of us, Nick Hockley or myself, can speak directly to the decision-making process in 2018," Freudenstein said.

"This includes being able to provide any further insights around how the original judgement was made, that Tim’s behaviour did not breach the code of conduct and that it did not warrant any further disciplinary action.

"Once again, while I cannot speak about the original decision-making in 2018, what I can say is that faced with the same circumstances, and with the benefit of all relevant information about this matter, Cricket Australia would not make the same decisions today.

"I acknowledge that the decision clearly sent the wrong message to the sport, to the community and to Tim – that this kind of behaviour is acceptable and without serious consequences.

"The role of Australia Captain must be held to the highest standards."

At the time of the investigation, David Peever was CA chair and James Sutherland was the organisation's CEO.

Freudenstein added: "A decision was made in 2018 and that decision was final. The details weren't known to anyone who've been on the board since that stage."

Paine follows Smith in being forced to step down from the captaincy in controversial circumstances and Hockley added that highest standards would be expected of the next skipper, expected to be Pat Cummins.

"Going forward I think it's incumbent on everybody to have the highest standards to represent Australia and particularly in a leadership position," Hockley said.

Paine was on Saturday due to play his first game of competitive cricket since neck surgery in September for University of Tasmania against South Hobart-Sandy Bay in Tasmanian club cricket but the day's play was called off due to rain.

Tim Paine has sensationally resigned as Australia's Test captain on the eve of the Ashes after being embroiled in a sexting scandal.

The 36-year-old wicketkeeper made the stunning announcement at a brief press conference on Friday, although he clarified he intends to remain available for selection.

Paine had taken over as Australian skipper from Steve Smith in the wake of the sandpaper scandal during the South Africa Test tour in 2018.

The Tasmanian, who is married with two children, revealed the decision was based on an explicit text exchange with a female former Cricket Tasmania colleague from 2017.

The incident was investigated at the time and Paine had been cleared of breaching Cricket Australia's Code of Conduct but he had recently learned the exchange was set to be made public and subsequently opted to stand down.

"It's an incredibly difficult decision but the right one for me, my family and cricket," Paine said.

"On reflection my actions in 2017 do not meet the standards of an Australian cricket captain or the wider community. I'm deeply sorry for the hurt and pain that I have caused for my wife, my family and the other party.

"I'm sorry for any damage that this does to the reputation of our sport and I believe it's the right decision for me to stand own as captain effectively immediately. I do not want this to become an unwelcome distraction to the team ahead of a huge Ashes series."

Paine became particularly emotional when discussing his role as Test captain, which he described as the "greatest privilege" of his playing career, having led the side which retained the Ashes in England in 2019.

"I've loved my role as captain of the Australian cricket team," he said. "It's been the greatest privilege of my sporting life to lead the Australian men's team.

"I'm grateful for the support of my teammates and proud of what we've been able to achieve together. To them I ask for understanding and forgiveness. To Australian cricket fans, I'm deeply sorry my past behaviour has impacted our game on the eve of the Ashes.

"I've been blessed with a wonderful loving supportive family and it's breaks my heart to know how much I've let them down. They've always stood by me and been my most loyal fans. I'm indebted to them for their support.

"I will remain a committed member of the Australian cricket team and look forward with anticipation for what is a huge Ashes tour."

Paine had earlier this week been included in Australia's 15-man squad for the first two Ashes Tests despite neck surgery in September.

Fast bowler Pat Cummins had been named in that squad as vice-captain, while Smith may be considered to step in as captain having served his penance for his 2018 indiscretion.

The First Test against England is due to commence at the Gabba in Brisbane on December 8.

The MCG Ashes Test and the Australian Open will be watched by capacity crowds following the easing of coronavirus restrictions in Victoria.

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews has announced there will no longer be limits on gatherings in the state.

Andrews had revealed last month, when the latest lockdown ended, that he was hopeful at least 80,000 will be able to attend the Boxing Day Test.

Australia and England can now look forward to playing in front of a full house of 100,000 next month.

The first grand slam of the year, starting at Melbourne Park on January 17, is also set to be played without a cap on the number of spectators allowed in.

"Whether it's 100,000 people at the MCG on Boxing Day or a smaller group of people standing up at the … local pub, this is the COVID-normal that every Victorian has built," he said at a press conference.

Crowds for the 2021 Australian Open were limited to 30,000 people per day – around half capacity – prior to a snap lockdown being implemented during the tournament.

No more than 30,000 were permitted in the MCG for Australia's Boxing Day Test against India last year.

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