After a hype-filled build-up, the first Ashes test is finally upon us. England and Australia will take to the field at roughly midnight (UK time) to contest the first rubber of the five-match series, and much of the talk has been about who isn’t Down Under, rather than who is.
Ben Stokes is sat at home in Durham as he awaits the outcome into the criminal investigation regarding his night-time dust-up with a reveller in Bristol back in the summer. The likelihood is that he will play no part in the series.
The Aussies have had a field day with that; rarely allowing the Three Lions to forget that their world class all-rounder is absent. Even the English press has been rather macabre about their team’s chances of regaining the famous urn.
But then, this Australia side is hardly blessed with solidarity either. Cameron Bancroft and Peter Handscomb will make their Ashes debuts in the early hours, while wicketkeeper Tim Paine isn’t even the first choice keeper at his club side. For all their bluster, the Aussies are far from being settled.
Contrast that with England, who have a consistent starting eleven, barring the loss of Stokes, with only Jake Ball as the slightly eyebrow-raising selection. The Three Lions have won plenty of test matches in the past few years, and are arguably – if all tests were played at neutral venues – the best team in the world.
So there’s plenty of intrigue ahead of this first test then, and the bookmakers’ odds reflect the fact. Despite being unbeaten since 1988 at this Gabba ground in Brisbane, the men from Down Under are available at a lengthy 8/11 -which suggests the bookies are willing to take a chance on England at 11/4.
So can Joe Root’s side make them, and the Aussies, pay?
As mentioned, Australia’s record at the Gabba is incredible; they haven’t tasted defeat in some 28 tests there, with 21 wins and seven draws plus five victories and two draws against England.
Winning the toss is all important here. Of the last five tests played in Brisbane, the Aussies won the coin flip in three and won the lot after opting to bat first. In the two they lost the toss, India pushed them very close after choosing to bat and South Africa claimed a draw.
So yep, the coin toss is key. If the Aussies call correctly then we would expect them to bat first and rack up a 400+ total, which of course would make life very difficult for England. But if Root guesses right and the Three Lions can make first use of the track, write them off at your peril.
So, consider setting your alarm and placing your wager after heads or tails has been called.
As you would expect at a ground where big scores are par for the course, a number of the Australian batsmen have been prolific at the Gabba.
David Warner, Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith have all notched big hundreds here in the past couple of years, and so all are worthy of consideration in this market.
But with Warner struggling with a neck injury – he is yet to have a full net practice in readiness for the game, most punters will opt for captain Smith to lead from the front at odds of 3/1.
As for England, the Gabba is a ground that does not hold many good memories for their batsmen, but Alistair Cook has tended to thrive under the pressure of the hot beating sun and the baying crowd. He has a double hundred and a pair of half centuries in his last four innings here, and as a left hander he is better placed to tackle the threat of fellow leftie – and dangerous Aussie paceman – Mitchell Starc. So back the former skipper to top score for the Three Lions at 7/2.
The Gabba is not a ground where spin plays much of a role, so we don’t anticipate Nathan Lyon or Moeen Ali having much of an impact with ball in hand.
The last test here was a day/night affair, and that tends to change the conditions somewhat. Under the floodlights the Kookaburra ball tends to swing around a bit more, but in standard tests like this there will be minimal swing past the first 20 overs or so – then guile will be required to winkle a wicket or two.
As such, we have to back the two countries’ premium performers in Mitchell Starc (2/1) and James Anderson (11/4). This pair are the most predominant swingers of the new ball, making them dangerous first up, but they also boast a better skillset than their teammates, which suggests they can pick up scalps once conditions take a turn for the unfriendly.