Australia have arrived in England seeking their first away Ashes win since 2001. The host nation may be favourites to regain the Urn but with issues at the top of the order, the 2019 World Cup winners may just be vulnerable in this form of the game.
The first of five tests gets underway at Edgbaston on Wednesday August 1st, but where will the smart money be placed ahead of what should be a memorable series?
The Aussies ponder
With just over a week to go until the first ball is bowled in anger, Australia are yet to finalise their squad, with the return of key players from exile causing some selection issues. In their last test against Sri Lanka back in February, Joe Burns and Kurtis Patterson made centuries but as David Warner and Steve Smith return, both men may well miss out.
Meanwhile, former Aussie leg spinner Shane Warne picked his starting XI for the first game in Birmingham and while the selectors will surely make some tweaks, it looks a formidable unit. Of those certain to play, Smith and Warner are ‘inked in’ and they’re likely to be joined by Usman Khawaja in the top three. The second opener’s slot may be a straight battle between Marcus Harris and Cameron Bancroft while Travis Head is an underrated player at number five.
There may not be too much support for Warne’s calls to include Matthew Wade as a specialist batsman at number six but it’s the Australian bowlers who are likely to hold the key to winning this series. We may be heading into the hottest, driest part of the summer but English conditions may yet suit the likes of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and James Pattinson.
That’s an impressive mix of pace and seam and it will come up against an England batting line up that currently has one specific area to solve.
England’s key battle
England’s struggles to find settled batsmen at the top of the order were exacerbated by the retirement of Alastair Cook at the end of the 2018 series with India. Cook had seen off 12 opening partners since Andrew Strauss left the international stage and there continues to be a lack of tangible options at the very top.
Jason Roy is the latest to slot into this role as the selectors hope that the Surrey man can translate his ODI form into the 5 day game. This isn’t the first time that such an ‘experiment’ has been carried out. Roy’s former 50-Over opening partner Alex Hales was given 11 tests between 2015 and 2016 but emerged with a modest average of 27.28.
England now go into their ‘warm up’ test with Ireland with a top three of Roy, Rory Burns and Joe Denly. Clearly the trio will be under the spotlight but England aren’t exactly overflowing with alternatives. This problem was highlighted perfectly when the hopelessly out-of-form Keaton Jennings was recalled to the test side to face West Indies at Gros Islet in February.
We now go back to Shane Warne who suggested a call up for Kent’s 21 year old Zak Crawley. If we look at County Cricket there are many other promising youngsters including Somerset’s Tom Banton and Ollie Robinson who plays with Crawley at Kent. The future may be bright but an Ashes Series comes too soon for them.
So, here lies the key battle in the five tests that lie ahead: Burns, Roy and Denly simply have to score runs and lay a platform as there is virtually a complete lack of alternatives.
The men to watch
The good news for England is that they have players who have frequently taken them to respectable totals when that top order has failed. They tend to be marshalled by Jonny Bairstow, assisted by Jos Buttler and the surprise package from those 2018 India tests, Sam Curran.
Bairstow is worth considering in England top batsman markets, both in individual tests, and across the series itself. At the age of just 21, Curran is now in the genuine all-rounder class in the five day game but this will be his sternest test to date.
Moving back to Australia, our preference in top batsman betting options tends to lie with Steve Smith. David Warner will almost certainly start as favourite but Smith has a good record against England and his more patient approach is perfectly suited to the five-day game.
Moving on to the bowling unit, many expect England to include Jofra Archer when their squad for the first test is announced. Archer has the pace and consistency to thrive at this level and, perhaps more importantly, he’s less injury prone than many who have taken the third seamer position alongside James Anderson and Stuart Broad.
Fitness may also be a concern for Australia’s Mitchell Starc across a long, five-test series but, having become the first man to finish as leading wicket taker in two World Cups, the left armer is pivotal to the tourists’ success.
Look out too for James Pattinson: like Starc and others, he needs to stay fit, but he has the potential to be the quickest and most hostile of all the Aussie bowlers and he’s enjoyed success in English conditions during a county spell with Nottinghamshire.
Who will win The Ashes this year?
England cannot keep recovering from 43/7 and expect to build totals in excess of 300. The hosts possess a resilient middle order but against such a top class seam attack, the pressure on the top three is intense.
Is this Ashes series likely to be decided by one single factor? It may well be the case that the destiny of that little urn depends on Burns, Roy and Denly, and if any deficit looks unassailable, the selectors might as well promote youth and look to build for the next time these teams meet in 2021/22.
The fast-paced nature of test cricket in the modern day suggests we will have no draws, unless the weather intervenes, so we may well have a repeat of the 3-2 scoreline when the teams last met here in 2015. Unfortunately for England, we suspect they may be on the wrong end of that result this time around.