The 2015 Ashes starts tomorrow in Cardiff as underdogs England look to claim their fourth successive home Ashes triumph and snatch the famous urn from holders Australia.
Given both teams’ recent form, the Aussies will win 5-0 and that will be all she wrote. Or will it?
With Australia packing plenty of pace into their attack, England can expect some short stuff but they will find the likes of Mitchell Johnson and Mitchell Starc easier to play on England’s slower pitches.
Add the likely omission of star Ashes performer Peter Siddle from the visitors’ starting XI and England will be breathing a little easier.
Elsewhere, bookies odds of 2/5 for an Australia series victory look especially stingy given the historical Ashes records.
Of the 68 Ashes series, 32 have been won by Australia, while England have snared 31 winning four of the last six. It’s not a clear cut Australian win after all.
England’s situation has improved markedly since their 5-0 humiliation in the 2013-14 series.
There is continuity and renewed confidence amongst their batting line-up, with the long-vilified Alastair Cook returning to something near his best form in recent series against the West Indies and New Zealand.
Adam Lyth is his likeliest opening partner, while Joe Root has rapidly improved – he looks England’s most fluid runscorer at present.
England’s middle order is more fragile, Root aside, as Ian Bell and Gary Ballance have struggled for runs recently while Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Jos Buttler provide plenty of threat but little dependability.
The hosts have also reinforced their bowling unit, with ever-presents James Anderson and Stuart Broad leading a line which is bolstered by the express pace and steepling bounce of Mark Wood.
Wood is a tricky customer as not only do opposing batsmen have to contend with his 90mph snorters he also likes to vary the angle and length of his run-ups – tactics more commonly seen in shorter formats of the game.
Perhaps the main weakness of their attack is Moeen Ali, who has struggled to fill the spinning boots of Graeme Swann, often proving expensive. Ben Stokes will also concede many boundary balls but showed signs of greater control against New Zealand.
Arguably, the form of Steve Smith is Australia’s most potent weapon.
Since October, the right-hander has scored 1,226 runs at an average of 102.17, notching five centuries and five fifties.
His first-innings average of 89.64 places him second on the all-time list behind Don Bradman. England be wary.
Smith will almost certainly bat at three behind the aggression of opener David Warner, while Michael Clarke will provide formidable company at five provided he remains injury-free.
Australia coach Darren Lehmann also faces a tough decision over which wicketkeeper to pick.
The decline of Brad Haddin is well documented, but he consistently peaks for Ashes series and could fight off a strong claim to the gloves from Peter Nevill, who has been in good knick with the bat in Australia’s brief warm-up games.
Following on from a trend they set a decade ago, Australia bat deep into the line-up with the ability to transform scores of 150-7 into a 300+ score. Just ask the West Indies what that felt like a few months ago.
And, after the tail wags, the bowlers can rip through any batting line-up as Johnson, Starc and new recruit Josh Hazlewood get stuck in with the new cherry.
Like England, spin is their weakness with Nathan Lyon looking every bit as vulnerable as Moeen Ali amongst both sides’ star contingent of seamers.
So, the moral of this preview is not to believe the early predictions. Both sides look a match for each other but perhaps Australia carry the greater confidence into the series.
That could well translate into an early series lead, but can we write off England after their recent improvement? Definitely not.
This could be one doozy of an Ashes series.
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