It is one of the oldest sporting engagements on the planet, with the first seeds of the Ashes sewn way back in 1882, and to this very day that famous little urn is still competed for feverishly by England and Australia.
It’s an old and bitter rivalry, and one that has occasionally overstepped the mark both on the pitch and off it, if Joe Root and David Warner’s alleged scuffle in a Birmingham branch of the Walkabout bar is to be believed. But that simply goes to highlight the passion for all involved, with the Aussies rarely ones to hide their light under a bushel as a collective.
Indeed, Australian cricket legend Ricky Ponting has predicted a 4-0 series win for his side against the ‘Poms’ when the action gets underway in Brisbane on Thursday November 23.
Both tams have been beset by problems in the build-up, with England’s former vice captain and key all-rounder Ben Stokes still on the sidelines pending an investigation into his alleged assault following an after-hours incident in Bristol back in the summer. His loss, as a player and a strong character, is going to be tough for the Three Lions to overcome.
But the Aussies are far from a settled side, and indeed there are still a number of positions up for grabs in their starting eleven. The first test is just a week away and the hosts still don’t know their best team – that must be of huge concern.
As we will discover later in this preview, there is a recent trend for the home side winning the Ashes, and with Stokes also missing it’s perhaps no surprise to see Australia installed as a general 3/4 favourite with the bookmakers to regain the urn.
But one thing we do know about this England side is that they won’t go down without a fight, and their price of 5/2 will certainly attract interest from some arguably optimistic Three Lions supporters.
So where does the smart money lie for the Ashes 2017-18?
As mentioned, England are shorn of the all-round talents of Ben Stokes, and were then dealt a cruel blow when his replacement, Steven Finn, picked up an injury in training. He has since been replaced by the fiery Tom Curran, leaving the Three Lions’ fast bowling department rather threadbare should an injury befall Anderson, Broad or Woakes.
The good news is that a number of English batsmen – bemoaned as the weak link of the squad – have scored runs in the warm-up matches, and so Joe Root will now have a tough choice to make between James Vince and Gary Balance at number three. Jonny Barstow is expected to move up to five and Moeen Ali to six in a reshuffle designed to cater for the loss of Stokes.
As for Australia, there are some names inked into their team sheet – the likes of Warner, Steve Smith, Usman Khawaja, plus bowlers Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins – will all start presuming they don’t get injured in the interim.
But there are plenty of question marks too. Who will open with Warner? Who will bat at six? Who will keep wicket? Who will be the fourth seamer? These are questions that the Australian selectors have just a week to answer, and worryingly for them not many of the available candidates are really throwing their hands up for selection.
The likely names – Matt Renshaw, Peter Handscomb and Matthew Wade – are all desperately out of form, while Nathan Coulter-Nile has subsequently picked up an injury ruling him out of the best part of the series.
England may have their problems, but at least their starting eleven pretty much picks itself.
England’s preparations have been pretty solid by all accounts, and it’s been a case of so far, so good for a number of players in the fold.
The Three Lions arrived in Australia at the tail-end of October, and their first competitive outing saw a reasonable performance against a Western Australian XI, before a hammering of Cricket Australia followed.
Pleasingly, Mark Stoneman and Dawid Malan have been in the runs – confirming their selection for the first test, and Chris Woakes appears to be back to his best with the ball. Mason Crane, the young leg-spinner yet to make his international debut, has also bowled well thus far.
But you would have to say that the Aussies’ prep has been rather more serious. Their players are embroiled in the Sheffield Shield, which is as competitive as club cricket gets, and many of their squad have been playing at test venues for the past few weeks. There really is no substitute for that.
The History Books
The most recent Ashes’ series have created a trend that looks well worth following in as far as punters are concerned.
Since 2002/03, seven of the eight Ashes series’ played have been won by the home side. The only aberration was England’s outstanding 3-1 win on Australia soil in 2010/11, and the current crop of players will need to summon up similar levels of intestinal fortitude in front of a baying home crowd if they are to repeat that feat.
As important a stat, perhaps, is the dominance that Australia have enjoyed on home soil barring that particular series. If we take the 2010/11 contest out of the equation, the Aussies have won their last three home Ashes’ by scorelines of 4-1, 5-0 and 5-0.
The law of averages suggest that England are going to be very much second-best in Australia, and the absence of Ben Stokes will not help on that front.
But if the English batsmen can get off to a good start then their confidence will flourish; crucial if they are to score enough runs to win two, three or even four of the five tests.
The object of Australia’s early movements in the series will be to ensure the opposite: that England’s batsmen’s spirit is crushed. They will hope to achieve that with hostile seam bowling and an even more hostile home support.
The first test is pivotal, and that’s why the ball is very much in Australia’s court: they haven’t lost at the Gabba ground in Brisbane in 28 tests, with a W5 D2 L0 record against England in that time. The last time the two sides met there Mitchell Johnson tore the Three Lions apart, and Mitchell Starc will be hoping to do the same this time around with some ultra-quick bowling.
In the modern game it is the weather that dictates whether a test match ends in a draw or not, rather than dogged ‘dig in’ style batting, and so assuming the conditions are fine it is hard to see past a comprehensive Australia series win. The 4-1 scoreline is available at 7/1 with the bookmakers.