The Ashes begins at midnight on Tuesday evening and Richard Mann has delivered his verdict on a series that promises to be a hard-fought contest.
1pt 2-2 series correct score at 8/1 (General)
1pt 2-1 Australia series correct score at 12/1 (General)
1pt Josh Hazlewood first Test Man of the Match at 14/1 (Sky Bet)
It’s been a number of years since an English Ashes tour of Australia started with so many unknowns, so many unanswered questions, and the very real possibility that this series might not run entirely to script – that England might just defy the doubters and regain that famous little urn.
That’s not to say this England side is a great one. It’s not. But within its ranks there is close to a handful of great cricketers – James Anderson, Ben Stokes, Stuart Broad and Joe Root – and unlike the last couple of Ashes series Down Under, this time the hosts have some definite weak spots and an unusual lack of depth in the fast-bowling department.
Whether England’s group of seamers can be effective in these conditions will probably decide the outcome of the series, particularly whether they can get the Kookaburra ball to move sideways, but they have at their disposal a group of skilful bowlers with strong records, meaning that the quality to miss out when the first Test begins at the Gabba at midnight on Tuesday evening will be superior to the reserves in Australia's camp.
The challenge for England will be to somehow nullify Australia’s formidable first-choice attack which will be led by new captain Pat Cummins and the excellent Josh Hazlewood.
The last time England won in Australia, under the leadership of Andrew Strauss in 2010/2011, England had depth in the bowling department and their seamers were able to consistently find some degree of movement to aid their cause, though the foundations of that 3-1 series victory were laid by a batting unit that had it all: solidity up top, brilliance in the middle order, and a dangerous tail.
England don’t have that this time, but they do have genuinely world-class performers in Root and Stokes, a horses-for-courses pick in Dawid Malan and a wildly talented wicket-keeper batsman in Jos Buttler who could well revel in Australian conditions.
It still might not be enough – it probably shouldn’t be – but this is not Australia as we used to know it. This is an Australian batting line-up with issues throughout – the brilliant Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith apart – with David Warner still having questions to answer after a horror show in the 2019 series between the sides, so too his opening partner Marcus Harris. Travis Head was dropped last year having struggled so badly against India, while keeper Alex Carey will make his Test debut following Tim Paine’s recent shock resignation.
Make no mistake, these are two flawed sides. India have proved that in the last year, overcoming a spate of injuries to beat Australia in the winter before again dominating in England just a few months ago. As good as India are, they were able to perform so well in foreign conditions because of the weaknesses in their opponents.
But perhaps it is those frailties that make this series such an interesting one. Until the cricket begins, we just don’t know if Australia can score enough runs without Labuschagne and Smith making most of them, just as we don’t know if Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon can disprove Shane Warne among others and recapture their former glories, thus not exposing Australia’s thin bowling resources.
We can only guess what, at 39 years of age, Anderson has left in the tank, and whether he can conquer Australia like he did India last winter. Hot on the back of an outstanding T20 World Cup, will Buttler come good in the biggest Test series of all, can Jonny Bairstow finally prove the doubters wrong, and will it be redemption for Stokes after he missed the last Ashes tour under a cloud following that regrettable night out in Bristol.
For all the weakness and frailty, we also have two teams boasting some of the world’s finest cricketers, and others within the respective squads brimming with so much potential that calling this series one way or the other is hard to do. None of the good, bad and the ugly are off the table and the only thing that appears certain is that the next six weeks should deliver some very watchable cricket.
In sum, I think England have a puncher’s chance. Australia are deserving favourites, of course they are, with home advantage such a crucial factor nowadays and their first-choice bowling attack ideally suited to these conditions and having helped Australia beat England 4-0 at home four years ago. But they are not unbeatable, they have a weaker bowling attack than when drawing 2-2 in England in 2019 and, to my mind, England are a better side now – even without Jofra Archer.
We shouldn’t forget what a huge loss Archer is for England and the series in general. His 22 wickets in 2019 lit up that series, but England only had Anderson for four overs that summer, Mark Wood not at all, while Ollie Robinson’s emergence has raised the quality and deepened the resources of the bowling group even more.
That’s not to downplay Archer’s absence. He will be a huge loss. But England can win without him, and the fact James Pattinson has already had to turn down a request to reverse his retirement decision suggests Australia are worried they might be light from the fine crop of fast bowlers they had in 2019. You can add Peter Siddle, another to have retired since the last Ashes, to the absent list.
I don’t see too many differences in the batting of either side since 2019. Warner will surely score more runs this time around, but for all his potential, I’m not sure Cameron Green’s selection guarantees more runs than Matthew Wade or Usman Khawaja. I really do think Khawaja should be playing over Head at number five and expect Australia to make that change before long.
As ever, England will rely heavily on the batting of Root and Stokes, but the former comes into this series on the back of the most productive 12 months of his life, while Malan is a good pick for these conditions. The opening pair remains a concern, however.
As much of a cliché as it may be, England desperately need to start well. Historically, the Gabba has been a graveyard for touring English sides, but a La Nina weather pattern has already left Brisbane sodden from so much rain and it is expected to affect the series opener. In fact, weather forecasters aren’t completely ruling out a washout at the Gabba.
The prospect of cloudy conditions and a greener Gabba surface than usual will be welcome news for Anderson and the rest of the England attack, and with the day/night Test in Adelaide next in the itinerary, England might never get a better chance of starting an away Ashes series well.
And they’ll need to. If England are behind after Adelaide, they will be up against it, but a washout in Brisbane wouldn’t be the worst result for Root’s side with the prospect of facing Anderson and Chris Woakes under lights in the second Test not one Australia’s top order will be relishing.
If we do get enough play for a result this week, England will need to take advantage of conditions expected to be more to their liking than in previous years. If the tourists can stay in touch early in the series, then we might see just what Australia have in reserve in regards to their bowling, while the pressure would undoubtedly heat up on Cummins and his team.
As I argued in my Antepost Angle column here a few months ago, I really do think England can be competitive in the coming weeks and while current series odds of 9/2 are a few points shorter than the already advised bet at 7/1, there might still be some mileage in that for those not yet involved.
From here, I’m happier to play the series correct score market. In the belief the series should be a competitive one, I’ll start by backing the 2-2 DRAW at 8/1, split stakes with AUSTRALIA TO WIN THE SERIES 2-1. With England to win the series already in the staking plan, I want to cover on the hosts in the series correct score market, but 28/1 for England to win 2-1 might appeal to those happy to chance the tourists.
It’s worth remembering that these are two sides with their faults, and a nip and tuck series could easily play out. Doubts about the weather next week has to bring the draw into play at the Gabba, while we can’t even be sure what, where or when the fifth Test – scheduled for Perth – will take place. There has been talk of the MCG staging that match, along with the Boxing Day Test, and given the 2017 renewal served up a high-scoring draw, 2-1 either way is a big player in the correct score market.
I published my Ashes specials preview a week ago and made the case for backing Ollie Pope for top England series batsman honours at 14/1, but talk that Bairstow will be preferred to him at number six could scupper those plans.
Coach Chris Silverwood spoke on Sunday about how the wickets in Australia ‘will suit the way he plays’ when discussing Pope’s selection claims, but despite not averaging anywhere near forty in a calendar year since 2016, Bairstow seems likely to win the race for number six.
As such, I might have to take my medicine and watch short-priced favourite Root dominate that market. For those put off by Root’s relatively modest average of 38.00 in Australia and wanting to take on England’s captain, Malan now appeals as the obvious alternative given he was England’s leading runscorer in 2017/2018 when making 383 runs at an average of 42.55.
Malan is a fine player of quick bowling, relying on his silky touch and a strong back-foot game honed in South Africa. I think he’s an improved player four years on – more mentally than anything drastically different from a technical point of standpoint – and he's certainly better equipped than many in the England camp to cope with Australian conditions and this pace attack. I expect him to do well.
More immediately, the prospect of a green pitch and overheads could make batting hard work in Brisbane. Even if there isn’t enough play to force a result, the Man of the Match award will still need to be won and I’ll split stakes on the two outstanding new-ball bowlers on show, JAMES ANDERSON and JOSH HAZLEWOOD.
Anderson has taken 32 wickets at 23.40 already in 2021, suggesting age is not catching up with him yet, and his performances in the first innings of matches have been getting better and better. I know Australia hasn’t been his favourite hunting ground over the years, but he was outstanding here in 2010/2011 and again last time when receiving little support.
First up with some help from conditions, I’m backing him to make an impact in a match that might prove tough going for batsmen, given those in both sides have had so little red-ball cricket preparation ahead of the series. 14/1 for Man of the Match honours rates decent value.
Add Hazlewood to the staking plan, too. The New South Wales paceman is fresh from an outstanding T20 World Cup and seemingly at the peak of his powers right now.
Hazlewood has taken 29 wickets at 25.65 from six Test matches at the Gabba, and this week’s conditions might be the most favourable he has encountered in Brisbane so far. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t bowl well and 14/1 (Sky Bet) wants snapping up.
Published at 2015 GMT on 05/12/21
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