Who Will Win The Ashes?
Can England retain the Ashes or will the Aussies prevail on home soil? Today cricket writer Nick Miller takes a close look at the upcoming Ashes series in Australia.
With another Ashes series set to start just three months after the last one ended, let's take a look at who might prevail in the Australian summer.
Will England Win The Ashes.........Again?
For England, this is a chance to make Ashes history. If they retain the urn in Australia, this will be the first time they have won four series in a row since the 1800s, when they were victorious in the first eight times the Ashes were contested. That run was also the last time they won two consecutive series in Australia. They're favourites to do so as well, not least because this Australia side were well beaten 3-0 in the summer, and have won just three Tests from their last 15, since November 2012.
One of England's key strengths is, once again, a relatively settled team. Michael Carberry's likely inclusion as Alastair Cook's opening partner is a reasonably big change, but one suspects that, as Shane Warne said while attempting to wind the English players, fans and media up, Joe Root will be happier, for the time being, batting at six. Other than that, the only spots that are in question are at wicketkeeper, where Matt Prior appears to be recovering well from a hamstring injury, and the third seam bowler, with Steven Finn, Boyd Rankin and Chris Tremlett duking it out to start in Brisbane.
Michael Clarke may have picked Tremlett in his bizarre 'announcement' of the England side last week, but if the England camp pay attention to the tour matches so far, Tremlett will be lucky to be included. He has just one wicket at a cost of 146 runs, with Rankin and Finn returning much more respectable figures of seven at 33.57 and 11 at 33.36 respectively. While two games apiece is hardly the biggest sample size, it would be curious to include the big Surrey bowler, particularly since his main attribute in Australia (his height) is not exactly something the 6ft 7 Finn and Rankin lack.
Still, it seems unlikely that Finn will be picked either, given his control issues and bowling coach David Saker's admission this week that he "still needs work". Rankin and Tremlett were talked about in much more glowing terms, so despite the issues of recent figures and experience, it looks to be a toss-up between those two. Tim Bresnan is likely to be ready for the second Test in Adelaide, so whoever plays, unless they perform spectacularly, it will probably only be for one game.
On could argue that the settled nature of the team might at some point turn into a weakness. The top seven are, barring injuries, virtually guaranteed to start every Test, given that the alternatives are the hitherto unconvincing Jonny Bairstow, the uncapped Gary Ballance and all-rounder Ben Stokes. Indeed, unless someone's form completely disappears, the only real chance of a change is if Flower and Cook decide to alter the balance of the team and pick a fifth bowling option, something they have been reluctant to do in 'live' Tests.
This will give Australia a chance to work on any weaknesses they picked up on over the summer, knowing that they will have plenty of chances at each batsman. Given relatively poor runs of form for Jonathan Trott and Cook, as well as the international inexperience of Carberry, the Australian bowlers may fancy their chances of some cheap wickets on home turf.
Still, this is an England side that looks balanced, and those players are established for a very good reason. Cook and Trott have both recovered from fallow periods before, Ian Bell is in the form of his life and Kevin Pietersen can usually be relied upon for at least one huge innings against Australia.
Indeed, England's key man could well be another that Australia are looking to target. Following his quite correct decision not to walk at Trent Bridge, Stuart Broad will be public enemy number one down under, but barracking the Nottinghamshire bowler might be a big mistake. Broad is likely to feed off the abuse in the manner of a wrestling heel, spurred on rather than cowed by spittle-flecked insults. Broad can be an enormously frustrating bowler, but he can also produce incredible, match-winning spells of bowling from nowhere. If the Australians insist on riling him, those match-winning spells could become more and more frequent.
2013/14 Ashes Series Odds - Odds As At 19th November
Can Australia Win The Ashes?
The hosts are certainly talking a good game. From Clarke's performance in which he stunningly predicted a team of which nine players had appeared in every summer Test, to the newly-recalled and full of beans Mitchell Johnson promising to get right up in England's grill.
"Trott has come out and said he is not worried about the short ball,” said Johnson last week. “We saw what he was like in the one-day series [in England] and he definitely did not like it. If I can get a few of those rearing balls towards the ribs, or a throat ball, it is his fault if he gets in the way.
"You would rather get the wicket more than anything, you get a lot of joy out of that, but last summer I busted [Kumar] Sangakkara's finger so they [Sri Lanka] were one short. If you can't get them out, that is the second option."
It seems to be a conscious choice by the Australians to give the same public appearance of brash belief that the great side of Ponting, Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath did, as opposed to the rather more meek and friendly version that we have seen in recent years.
2013/14 Ashes 1st Test Odds - Odds As At 19th November
Of course, that team had the ability to back their confidence up, given they were a team stuffed with geniuses, but this version of Australia might not have to play like all-time greats to cause England problems. Johnson's words may be full of braggadocio, but Trott did show some weakness against the short ball in the summer, while Cook's issues around off stump are resurfacing and there will be extensive probing of Root's still nascent technique.
Indeed, this Australia side is one full of improving players. From being something of a joke the last time England were on these shores, Steve Smith has developed into a genuine Test batsman, in Chris Rogers, David Warner and Shane Watson they seem to have finally settled on a happy and balanced top three, while even Ryan Harris' fitness has shown some danger of holding up. It was the most surprising development of the summer that Harris played in four straight Tests, and probably could have appeared in all five had the selectors not been so cautious at Trent Bridge.
Still, they are second-favourites for a reason. Watson's front pad is still the biggest target in world cricket, Warner will probably play some big shots but do something stupid before reaching a significant score, Clarke's back could go at any moment and Johnson is just as likely to bowl to the left and the right rather than at Trott's face or stumps.
So Who Will Win The Ashes?
Given the poor recent weather in Australia and further bad forecasts for the first Test in Brisbane, there are unlikely to be five results in the series. While Australia are improving, England still have the edge in all areas of the team, with more experience and quality throughout. England to win 2-1.
2013/14 Ashes Series Correct Score Odds - Odds As At 19th November
Looking for Ashes betting tips? Check our Cricket Betting Tips Board for all our community's Ashes betting tips throughout the tour.
Follow Nick on Twitter: @NickMiller79
And read more of his work at The73Overs.Wordpress.com