The ODI World Cup dust has barely settled, but it’s already time for the greatest battle in Test cricket: the Ashes. Ahead of a fascinating series, WILL EVANS looks at where the urn will be won and lost. . 

1. How big is home advantage?

From 1989-2003, Australia dominated the Ashes with eight straight series wins – including four in England. But since the iconic 2005 series in the Old Dart, Anglo-Australian Test cricket battles have overwhelmingly favoured the home nation.

England’s triumph Down Under during the 2013-14 summer is the only Ashes success by the visiting team since 2001. They have also won four straight series on home soil, claiming 10 Test wins to Australia’s four, with six drawn.

Australia carved out a dominant 4-0 Ashes victory at home two summers ago, but home advantage – as well as the team’s trials and tribulations since – sees the tourists go in as $2.30 underdogs to win the series. England are handy value at $1.90, while a drawn series is paying a juicy $7.50.

2. Can Warner and Smith block out the abuse?

After almost a year and a half in the Test wilderness, David Warner and Steve Smith don the whites for their country again – with Australia’s Ashes hopes largely resting on their shoulders. They endured a constant barrage from English crowds throughout the World Cup – and coped admirably – but it would be naïve to expect the home fans to relent now.

Warner had a decent Ashes tour in 2015, scoring a half-century in all five Tests. He was also magnificent in the World Cup.

But Smith’s wicket will remain the biggest prize for England. The ex-captain was the top run-scorer from either side in the 2015 series (508 at 56.44) and emphatically topped the charts at home during the 2017-18 Ashes (687 at 137.40). He boasts eight centuries in his last 27 Ashes innings.

Consequently, Smith is a $3.60 favourite to be Australia’s top batsman in the first Test. Warner is on the second line of betting at $4.00. But the superstar duo’s mental capacity to block out external distractions shapes as a bigger factor than their undoubted prowess with the willow.

3. Who wins pace battle?

Pat Cummins will be the first bowler picked for Australia after a stellar, Allan Border Medal-winning summer. James Pattinson has been tipped for a first-Test spot after an absence of three years, which leaves injury-hampered former spearheads Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood to fight it out for the remaining pace slot.

Starc and Hazlewood took 34 wickets between them during the 2015 Ashes. Cummins lines up for his first Ashes series in England, while Pattinson played two Tests there in 2013. Cummins is the $3.80 favourite to be Australia’s top bowler in the first Test and – given his handy batting – a tempting $11 Man of the Match option.

On the other side of the fence, veteran pair Stuart Broad and James Anderson are fizzing for another crack at the Aussies. Their expertise with the Duke’s ball in swinging English conditions looms as arguably the home team’s biggest trump card. Broad was the top wicket-taker during the 2015 series with 21, while he and Anderson both claimed 22 scalps during the 2013 Ashes in England.

With Chris Woakes and potentially Jofra Archer backing up the all-time greats, it appears to be advantage England at this stage. So much rests on Cummins’ ability to replicate his home-pitch form.

Anderson has been backed into $3.40 in the Top England Bowler market in the series opener and a $12 Man of the Match chance.

4. Can England’s openers step up?

Opening partnerships were a constant bugbear during England’s Ashes visit in 2017-18 – and few solutions have emerged since Alistair Cook’s retirement.

Rory Burns averages 22.28 after 14 Test innings. He made 6 and 6 in England’s scratchy win over Ireland last week. Likely partner, brilliant limited-over specialist Jason Roy, made his Test debut against Ireland. He was out for 5 opening then scored 72 at first drop.

Warner, with 21 centuries and an average of 48.20 in 74 Tests, gives Australia a massive edge in the match-up of the openers. If Australia retain the Ashes ($1.80), this will be one of the main reasons why.

5. Does Australia bat deep enough?

While Australia’s squad is brimming with blue-chip pace and seam options, their batting looks worryingly thin.

Warner and Smith pick themselves, while the reliable Usman Khawaja looks to have overcome injury to take his place at first drop. Australia look set to recall Cameron Bancroft to open with Warner.

The middle-order is far less settled, however. Captain and wicketkeeper Tim Paine is yet to record a Test century. Travis Head has made a promising start to his Test career but is inexperienced, as is fellow contender Marnus Labuschagne. No Australian batsman is in better form than Matthew Wade, but he will reportedly miss the first Test XI. All-rounder Mitch Marsh remains in the frame despite averaging 7.40 with the bat in his last 10 Test innings.

Australia could be relying on scrappy lower-order efforts from Pat Cummins and Nathan Lyon to post competitive totals.

Captain Joe Root is the glue holding England’s batting line-up together (and the $8.50 Man of the Match favourite). But the hosts boast plenty of studs in the middle-to-lower order capable of negating a top-order failure.

The credentials of keeper-batsman Jonny Bairstow and all-rounders Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali are unquestioned, while Chris Woakes has a Test ton to his name and young Sam Curran is more than capable of one.

Batting depth is surely a key reason why England head into the first Test as $1.91 favourites, with Australia $2.50 outsiders.

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