Marnus Labuschagne heads Richard Mann's staking plan for the Ashes as he picks out his best bets from the specials markets.
2pts Marnus Labuschagne top Australia series batsman at 5/2 (Sky Bet)
1pt Marnus Labuschagne top overall series batsman at 4/1 (Sky Bet)
2pts Pat Cummins top Australia series bowler at 9/4 (Sky Bet)
1pt double Marnus Labuschagne top Australia series batsman and Pat Cummins top Australia series bowler at 10.38/1 (Sky Bet)
2pts Ollie Pope top England series batsman at 14/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair)
MARNUS LABUSCHAGNE has been Australia’s top runscorer, and by some distance, in the last two Australian home seasons and has to be backed to continue his rapid rise by taking centre stage once again in this year’s Ashes.
When the last Ashes took place in England in 2019, Labuschagne began the series carrying drinks before he was drafted in as a concussion replacement for Steve Smith. Despite the first ball he received from Jofra Archer clattering into his grill and leaving him visibly rocked, Labuschagne has looked every inch a top-class batsman since, immediately becoming one of Australia’s most productive performers on that tour and thereafter.
Put simply, this is a batsman of the very highest order who is by no way out of place when we talk about teammate, Smith, Joe Root, Babar Azam, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson. The ‘big six’ as it should probably be now known, and Labuschagne is right in the mix.
The most straightforward way to enforce this point is by looking at the numbers, and Labuschagne was the leading runscorer in the ICC Test Championship that ran from 2019 to the summer of this year. Labuschagne’s 1675 runs from 13 matches just eclipsed Root’s 1660 runs that came from 20 matches. Like Labuschagne, Smith played 13 matches and compiled 1341 runs.
In order to finish first past the post in the top Australia Ashes series runscorer market, Labuschagne will have Smith to beat again, but there is growing evidence to suggest he will do so, not least’s last season’s home series against India in which Labuschagne managed 425 runs at an average of 53.25 and Smith 313 at 44.71. The previous year, Labuschagne made 347 runs against Pakistan and 549 against New Zealand. Smith was unusually quiet against Pakistan – making only 40 runs – but even a solid series against the Kiwis a few weeks later saw his 214 runs again overshadowed by Labuschange’s exploits.
Make no mistake, this is a run machine who has started the Sheffield Shield season by making two centuries and a fifty. While Labuschagne has been preparing for the Ashes with competitive red-ball cricket, the likes of Smith and David Warner have not.
That's not to say Smith won't enjoy a strong summer. I’m sure he’ll do well again, and let’s not forget that he averages 65.11 against England. But there have been just a few signs in white-ball cricket of late that he might not be as invincible as he once was, and India managed to keep the lid on him to a certain extent by bowling very straight and setting fields accordingly.
Of course, England will need to be as disciplined and ruthless to carry out such a plan with success, but I’m sure Root will remember how Stuart Broad dismissed Smith – caught at leg gully – in the final Test of that 2019 series. Neil Wagner was also keen to target Smith's hip and armpit area with some success just a few months later.
I’m not suggesting the code has been cracked and that England suddenly have the answer to the Smith puzzle, but it’s something to go on when the ball isn’t moving sideways, and that's more than they had two years ago.
I expect Smith to have his fair share of success again, and while I still have doubts about Warner, his proven quality has to be respected, too. But I don’t think either will dominate in the same way Labuschagne has spent the last two years dominating.
As such, the 5/2 on offer with Sky Bet for Labuschagne to be Australia’s top series batsman has to be snapped up, as does the 4/1 for him to be the top runscorer on either side.
I’m in very real danger of putting all my eggs in the Labuschagne basket here, but adding a rare double to the recommended bets makes perfect sense, with Labuschagne and PAT CUMMINS strong fancies for top Australia series batsman and bowler honours respectively.
With the case for Labuschagne already made, I have a similar level of confidence that Cummins can once again prove himself a class apart in the Australia bowling ranks.
A remarkable story that began with a sparkling Man of the Match performance on his Test debut in Johannesburg 10 years ago now finds itself writing a new chapter, with Cummins only a few days ago confirmed as the 47th Test captain of Australia following Tim Paine’s resignation.
I’ll be looking in more detail later in the week at how Australia taking the unusual step of making a fast bowler their captain effects the series on the whole, but I don’t think it makes Cummins any less likely to continue to be Australia’s most potent bowling weapon.
Former Australia captain Ricky Ponting has suggested there is a risk Cummins might not bowl himself quite as much as he should, or than Paine or Smith did in those key moments when long spells from their number one bowler were required. It’s certainly something I’ve considered, but Cummins is a very smart bowler boasting a sound cricket brain and, ultimately, I think he’ll know when his team needs him to keep going.
Furthermore, the whole idea of Smith returning as vice-captain is to help ease the load when Cummins is bowling, to ensure the right decisions are being made while Cummins is in the middle of a big spell, that Cummins the captain doesn’t take anything away from Cummins the bowler.
Another thing to consider is that Cummins is now very unlikely to miss a Test match this summer for rest and rotation reasons. A brilliant athlete, one who delivered more overs than any other seamer on either side in the 2019 Ashes, Cummins has never failed for fitness and we’ve seen time and time again how his stamina reserves have been deeper than Josh Hazlewood’s and Mitchell Starc’s.
Against India last year, Cummins got through more overs and took more wickets than either of that pair and just as he did in the Ashes, he also claimed more wickets than off spinner Nathan Lyon – just as he did in the 2019 Ashes when the leading wicket-taker on either side.
With only injury likely to stop him playing in any of the five scheduled Tests, Cummins makes strong appeal against his two fast-bowling colleagues who might require a break at some stage, and a spinner who England nullified really well the longer the series went on in 2019.
At 9/4, Cummins has to be backed for Australia series bowler honours.
Ahead of last summer’s Test series between England and India, I wrote on these pages about my admiration for Ollie Robinson the bowler and how I was convinced he would enjoy a good time of it against the Indians.
I also wrote that I didn’t buy into the notion that James Anderson would be rested at some stage that summer, and therefore I couldn’t advise a bet on Robinson given I expected England’s leading Test wicket-taker to be snapping at his heels all summer.
In the end, the five-match series ended after four Tests as India headed to the Indian Premier League under a cloud of controversy following a coronavirus scare in their camp.
Still, Anderson had been firmly on track to play all five matches in the series – and seven in all in the summer. Robinson, too, and his 21 wickets to Anderson’s 15 meant he finished the shortened series as England’s leading wicket-taker.
A few months on, and I’m in exactly the same conundrum as Robinson’s strong character, excellent skills and, crucially, steep bounce, promise to be a real asset in Australia, for all some might have discounted him because he doesn’t bowl at 90mph. People are looking back with blurry eyes if they think that Chris Tremlett bowled at the speed of light in 2010/2011. He didn’t, but he bowled with excellent control and generated steep bounce from back of a length.
If Robinson can do something similar, I think he’ll do well. But taking on Anderson is such a risky business, especially when there is a day/night Test at Adelaide thrown into the mix – a match in which Anderson claimed six wickets in the same fixture four years ago. Just like Cummins, his fitness and willingness to spill blood for his team means a serious lack of form or Root locking him in the hotel for a rest are the only reasons that Anderson won’t play all five Tests. Both are unlikely.
Furthermore, I don’t buy the nonsense likely to be spouted in the build-up about Anderson being ineffective without the Dukes ball. Four years ago, Anderson was much the best of England’s attack as he claimed 17 wickets at an average of 27.82. His economy rate was 2.11. In India earlier this year, he defied benign conditions to take eight wickets at 15.87, with his economy rate a miserly 1.92.
Anderson might not be quite as destructive with the Kookaburra ball away from home, but he’s still one of the best in world and despite the fact he will celebrate his 40th birthday next summer, he remains impressively fit.
With Robinson no guarantee to start the first Test at the Gabba now Stuart Broad is fully fit again and boasting such a fine Ashes record, 11/4 (Sky Bet) about Anderson for top England series bowler will appeal to plenty. But leaving Robinson out in Brisbane would make little sense to me – Broad or no Broad – and I firmly believe he has the tools to succeed out here. Paddy Power and Betfair aren’t so sure and have dangled the carrot at 11/2.
Once again, I’m faced with a conundrum, and once again, I can’t choose between the peerless veteran who rarely disappoints and the coming man whose best is still to come.
Punters will be doing well to get much bigger than evens for Root to finish the Ashes as England’s leading runscorer, and while its hard to pick too many holes in his case, I do think there is a bet against him.
Sticking with Root for a moment, the Yorkshire star will begin the series with 1455 runs under his belt in 2021 already, with six hundreds and an average of 66.13. The 30-year-old is patently at the peak of his powers right now and if England are to regain the Ashes, Root might need to justify his position as the number one ranked Test batsman in the world.
The numbers and what we've seen confirm he has never played better, but it might be significant that an overall average of 50.15 dips to 40.33 against Australia. That average is 38.00 in Australia and in 2017/2018, it was Dawid Malan who finished the series as England’s leading runscorer, not Root.
Playing the ball late and a penchant for gliding the quick bowlers through backward point and third man might be a profitable method of attack in England when playing the swinging ball late and under your eyes is an absolute must, but the Australians have made no secret that they believe that technique gets Root into trouble on the faster pitches Down Under. The Australian seamers will argue that’s why England’s captain has tended to nick off a lot in Australia in the past, and it’s how they intend to target him in the coming weeks.
While I can see their point to a certain degree, I’d counter that Root is a much better player now than even in 2019, and four years ago, five half-centuries but no hundreds would suggest it wasn’t technique that was the problem, more conversion. The last 12 months have seen Root put that right.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to be taking even-money either, not if he is consistently hauled into the piece early with doubts still remaining about England’s opening pair. The returning Ben Stokes is the obvious alternative, given he dominated this attack at times in 2019. He’s not played Test cricket for close to a year now, though, and is hardly huge value at 5/1.
The 14/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair) about OLLIE POPE might be, however. In fact, Pope looks ludicrously overpriced to me and while taking Root on has proven to be a futile exercise for a while now, I can’t resist another crack at him here.
Pope looked the real deal even before making his maiden Test Century in South Africa in early 2020, but for all his obvious talent, an average of 32.16 from 20 matches paints the picture of a man yet to truly find his place at international level. Bright, busy starts have too often ended in frustration, but injuries have played their part, too, and England have been right to play the long-game with the 23-year-old.
It’s easy to forget Pope is still so young, still learning his craft, still finding his way, and I firmly believe this tour could be a career-defining one for a young player with everything needed to enjoy a long and distinguished career in international cricket. A year ago, I thought Pope was England’s second-best Test batsman after Root and while I’ve had my doubts more recently, his comeback 81 against India at the Oval was just the reminder we all needed that sometimes you just have to keep the faith.
Perhaps Pope has struggled to make the transition from county cricket to international cricket, not because of talent, but because he hasn’t been able to find the right tempo to bat at this elevated level. In county cricket – and Pope averaged 78.27 for Surrey last summer – things come easy to Pope and he can score at will. International cricket against the very best requires a bit more than that and that innings at the Oval offered genuine hope that the penny is beginning to drop.
The Oval is an important consideration when thinking about Pope’s chances in Australia. That Pope averages 53.24 in First Class cricket where half of his matches are played at the Oval confirms that he is much more comfortable on a hard, generally quick surface that offers good, true bounce. I’m not sure green seamers suit such a strokemaker, nor the rank turners he encountered in India last winter, but Australia is different. Australia might be the closest thing he will find to home comforts in international cricket, and a strong tour of South Africa not so long ago reinforces that point.
These next few weeks are huge ones for Pope, and I expect him to show the world just how good he is. Whether that will be enough to outscore Root remains to be seen, but I’m happy to take 14/1 to find out.
Published at 2200 GMT on 28/11/21
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