Two and a half years after England famously dismantled Australia down under the two sides go head to head in crickets most illustrious series. While the two great rivals have battled in one day and twenty20 competition in recent months each encounter has been played with one eye on the little urn that’s been contested for since the later part of the nineteenth century. The next six weeks will see five matches played, starting at Trent Bridge tomorrow morning and concluding at the Kia Oval in August. For the first time in perhaps two decades England enter the series as clear favourites and it will perhaps be England’s ability to handle the pressure of being front runners which could dictate where the Ashes will reside when the battle concludes.
England go into the series with a fairly settled top seven, the exception being the second opening berth alongside captain Alistair Cook. Nick Compton has been omitted from the first test squad with Joe Root promoted to open in his place, while Jonny Bairstow is given the opportunity to cement his spot in the team at number six. None of the trio should be considered in the top run scorer market for the hosts, each for different reasons. Root has never opened in test cricket which means he’s going to have to answer serious questions about his ability to see off the new ball. Meanwhile Compton is unlikely to feature in the series, while Bairstow is yet to strike an international century despite being given plenty of opportunities over the past year. Matt Prior should also be avoided as run scoring opportunities at number seven in the order are few and far between, although his test record is outstanding. This leaves the usual suspects such as captain Cook (11/4) and Jonathan Trott (3/1) as the men likely to lead England’s run scoring charge. However it’s the controversial Kevin Pietersen (7/2) who I’m tipping to continue his superb record against the Aussies. KP announced himself to the world with a stunning 158 at the Oval back in 2005 and his double ton at Adelaide in 2010 will go down in Ashes folklore as one of the great knocks of modern times. Pietersen returned to action with Surrey following a leg injury two weeks ago, making an unbeaten 177 and he’s great value to dominate the Aussies once more this summer.
Captain Michael Clarke will be crucial to Australia’s Ashes chances, as the right hander has developed an incredible appetite for big scores since he took on leadership of the team from Ricky Ponting. Two double tons and one triple century in the 24 games is a phenomenal record, and 9/4 could look generous should Clarke, as expected, heavily outscore his teammates in the first test. The skipper is heavy favourite to lead by example and head the visitors run charts. The rest of the top seven isn’t set in stone with less than 24 hours to go until the first ball is bowled, although new coach has said Shane Watson (7/2) and Chris Rogers (4/1) will open the batting. This gives both players a chance to get the series off to a flying start, and Rogers could be worth a punt thanks to his knowledge of English conditions having excelled for Middlesex over the past few seasons.
The hosts’ bowling is experienced and variable, from the expert swing bowling of James Anderson to off-spinner Graeme Swann. Stuart Broad is a shoe-in to fill one of the other two bowling positions available while Tim Bresnan and Steven Finn will compete for the other. Finn should be given first crack at supplementing the other three, but over the course of a five match series Bresnan should expect to play in at least two of the games. Anderson is the most skilled of the attack and despite his age and workload has shown a remarkable ability to stay fit and is almost an ever present in the side. As a result he’s the man you’ll want to back to take the most Aussie wickets at odds of 13/8.
Australia’s attack is inexperienced and raw in comparison, but that doesn’t mean they should be underestimated. Mitchell Starc is a young left arm fast bowler who has an impressive test record despite his youth. Peter Siddle is one player English supporters will recognise thanks to his impressive performances in the past two Ashes contests including a hat-trick on the opening day of the 2010/11 Ashes at the Gabba. Nathan Lyon is the spin option, and although he has 76 test wickets to his name don’t be fooled in thinking he’s the next great Australian spinner. His accuracy is average and he isn’t a big turner of the ball, so expect performances closer to Bruce Martin than Graeme Swann. James Pattinson is another exciting young quick who is likely to be selected for the first test tomorrow. However Pattinson is not so fortunate as Starc in that he isn’t left handed, a characteristic that has given England some problems over the past few years. Zaheer Khan and Trent Boult are just two southpaws who have achieved success against Cook and co. which will give Starc (3/1) much encouragement. If he can stay fit then expect him to be very competitive in the Australian top wicket taking stakes.
So far as the eventual outcome of the series is concerned, England’s superiority in the ICC rankings (3rd) to Australia (4th) is reflected in odds of 1/3 on them winning the series and retaining the Ashes in style. The Aussies are 9/2 and could well be worth a punt, especially considering their bowlers are more than capable of taking 20 wickets. The draw is an unlikely outcome at 7/1, and there hasn’t been a drawn Ashes series since 1972. Although I won’t go as far as tipping Australia to regain the urn, I think the series will be closer than many expect and 2-1(15/2) to England could be the final outcome in a tight and hopefully entertaining tussle.
All odds are courtesy of Bet365.com