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Cricket – England V Australia Ashes Preview

Test cricket’s greatest contest – the Ashes – between bitter rivals England and Australia gets underway in the Old Dart this week. Five matches fought on a knife’s edge at hallowed grounds Edgbaston, Lord’s, Headingley, Old Trafford and The Oval, certain to produce drama, heroism and heartache as the adversaries grapple for ‘the urn’. 

Australia hold the Ashes courtesy of a drawn 2019 series in England sandwich between dominant series victories on home soil during the 2017-18 and 2021-22 summers.

England have undergone significant change since their demoralising trip Down Under 18 months ago, handing the coaching reins to aggressive Kiwi Brendon McCullum with Ben Stokes taking over as skipper.

Meanwhile, No.1-ranked Australia heading into the rubber on the back of an emphatic World Test Championship triumph over India at Lord’s. Consequently, the Aussies are $1.85 favourites to win a series in England for the first time in more than two decades. England are $2.55 to reclaim the spoils, while another drawn result is paying a juicy $7.25.

Aussies on top of the world 

Australia enjoyed another fruitful Test summer on home soil, toying with West Indies in a 2-0 sweep and cruising to a 2-0 series win over South Africa with only the Sydney whether denying a certain whitewash.

Marnus Labuschagne plundered more than 500 runs in four innings against the battling Windies, while Steve Smith joined him in posting a double-century in the series and Travis Head notched a knock of 175. Against the rebuilding Proteas, under-pressure opener David Warner was a controversial player of the series after blasting 200 in the Boxing Day Test but not doing much else, while Smith hit another ton and Usman Khawaja scored an unbeaten 195.

Australia’s February-March tour of India was typically arduous, but they fought back well in the four-match series to peg it back to 2-1 – and had their revenge in the WTC final at Lord’s last week. Dominating almost every session, Australia powered to a 209-run victory set up by centuries from Smith and man-of-the-match Head in the first innings. Alex Carey (66) top-scored in Australia’s second dig.

The bowling attack – minus the injured Josh Hazlewood – all pulled their weight in bowling out India twice. Scott Boland and Nathan Lyon both took five wickets, Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins four apiece, and Cameron Green two.

Hazlewood is racing the clock to be fit for the series opener in Birmingham on Friday, but there’s little doubt Boland will thrive in English conditions if given the chance. Australia’s top six – boasting four batters in the ICC’s Test top 10 – could not be more settled, despite Warner’s patchy form.

Smith ($2.35) is outstanding value to be Australia’s top series runscorer, though Labuschagne ($3.50), Head ($6.00) and Khawaja ($6.75) are all a decent shout. Cummins is a solid $2.88 favourite to take the most wickets for the tourists.

Jury still out on ‘Bazball’ 

England have attracted plenty of publicity – praise and scepticism – over so-called ‘Bazball’, their high-risk, high-reward tactics employed by incoming coach and ex-Black Caps firebrand Brendon McCullum.

England swept Pakistan 3-0 at home in December, while a 267-run victory in the first Test in New Zealand in February seemed another ringing endorsement of the daring style. But they created unwanted history by losing the second Test after enforcing the follow-on.

Exciting young batter Harry Brook announced himself as potential mainstay with three centuries and three fifies across five matches against Pakistan and NZ.

England had their own warm-up earlier this month at Lord’s, beating Test minnows Ireland by 10 wickets. Ollie Pope blasted a double-century and Ben Duckett smashed 182, while Stuart Broad and Josh Tongue took five-wicket bags.

Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow will form the nucleus of the batting line-up, while Brook and Pope face a big step up in class performing in the Ashes. Meanwhile, there is big question marks over the bowling attack with Jofra Archer and Jack Leach ruled out, veterans Broad and Jimmy Anderson set to be rested at various stages. Moeen Ali coming in to replace Leach looks a gamble, while Ollie Robinson, Broad and Anderson will lead the pace attack with Mark Wood out in the first Test.

Root ($3.05), Brook ($5.40) and Pope ($5.40) are the best England top series runscorer bets, while Robinson ($2.88), Anderson ($4.33) and Broad ($4.33) are the best top wicket-taker options.

Whether ‘Bazball’ can stand up to the pressure of a high-quality Australian side across an entire Ashes series seems unlikely. Will England dial it back a bit, or will McCullum and Stokes instruct the team to live or die by the sword?

Home advantage dictating Ashes terms

The home team is undefeated in the last six Ashes series, while Australia has not won a series in England since Steve Waugh’s charges claimed a 4-1 result in 2001.

But Australia did manage to retain the urn with a drawn result in the Old Dart in 2019, both teams winning two Tests apiece with one stalemate. Smith enjoyed an unbelievable series, scoring 774 runs at 110.57 with three centuries and three fifties in seven innings. Stokes was next on the runscorers list with 441 at 55.12, his two tons including an unbeaten 135 not out in England’s unforgettable  one-wicket win in the third Test at Headingley.

Cummins was the leading wicket-taker with 29 at 19.62, followed by Broad (23 at 26.65).

But the scars of Australia’s 4-0 rout Down Under may still be fresh for the England side. A stoic draw in Sydney was a lone positive for the tourists, who lost the other Tests by nine wickets, 275 runs, an innings and 14 runs, and 146 runs.

Head (357 runs at 59.50) and Root (322 at 32.20) were their teams’ respective top scorers, while Cummins again topped the wicket-taking count with 21 at 18.05.

It may seem Australia’s to lose – their squad is much more settled with less fitness concerns and in better form. But the Ashes is a difference beast and there’s destined to be some twists and turns over the next month.

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