It’s that time of year again. It’s dark when you leave to go to work, and just as gloomy when you come back. You wear a coat for everything. Leaves pile up on the wet ground and there’s already Christmas adverts on the telly.
The winter Ashes series is here, and it’s been a while since we had cricket on these pages. So, it might be a good time to look at the two outfits in some deeper detail before going against the bookies….
Form: Has been mostly good over the past year away from the spinning pitches of India. Joe Root had a pretty deep baptism when facing South Africa in four tests earlier in the summer, but he and his side bounced back from a capitulation in the second test at Trent Bridge to win the series 3-1 sand with a good deal of authority against a side that hadn’t lost in four series beforehand.
Their three-match series against the West Indies was expected to be a similar affair, but to their credit the Islanders battled back brilliantly and played the superior cricket in the second test to level the series, with the 144-run third-wicket stand between Brathwaite and Hope seeing off dim lighting and the new ball to take the Headingley test.
Their travels through Australia haven’t been as promising as one would hope, though. Australia came to regret making the mistake of giving England a real contest against a strong A side on a Test ground in 2011/12, but have not repeated that mistake since and put England on dead pitches against far inferior opposition.
That does account for some of the struggles the bowlers have had outside of the day-night match, although it is a worry that only recently, in their last warm-up against a Cricket Australia X, did we finally see them get some runs on the board with Mark Stoneman (111) (below, sweeping), Alistair Cook (70), Joe Root (62*), and David Malan (57*) all getting on the board.
However, it will be some worry that Cricket Australia XI’s Jason Sangha and Matt Short combined for 263, the pair of them becoming maiden centurions, as England’s attack struggled badly on the limp and lifeless pitch.
Oh, and of course, there’s the Ben Stokes issue.
For: This is not a side that is light in either test or Ashes experience. The first test squad has more of those than the hosts, and Australia is not new to a good number of them.
Alistair Cook and Joe Root have been top scorers in England innings here whilst Cook won here famously in 2011/12, and Bairstow also has experience, albeit of a losing tour.
Their bowling is also a real asset. Their new-ball wicket pairing is possibly the best in the world and have two tours under their belt with 900 wickets between them; They also have a very capable spinner in the shape of Moeen Ali, crucial in the previous subseries and able to upon a big workload.
Outside those who have already had a Tour down under, Mark Stoneman (seven seasons in Grade cricket) Mason Crane (seen spinning), Foakes and James Vince (also played for the Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash) have all had spells playing grade cricket in Australia, with Foakes, Overton and also Vince having taken tours there before with the England Lions squad.
Against: Ben Stokes’s absence is going to be huge. The all-rounder is a crucial bridge towards the middle order and the tail, as well as a bowler capable of exploiting the rock-hard pitches that Australia so often offers up. He has not yet been cleared but will miss the opener at The Gabba and it looks as if he will miss the entire tour.
Apart from that, batting strength in depth is a worry. Three of the top five have played fewer than seven Tests and their next all-rounder, the vitally important Moeen Ali, is yet to play a game on tour so far.
For: Home ground advantage, and the scheduling of light opposition games on woefully soft and dull pitches that should see England undercooked. Aside from that, they also have a side that is very well matched to take on England.
The attack bowling trio of Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazelwood are all fit to start the first test at the Gabba, with a pitch that suits all three ahead of an England lineup that has been put on placid surfaces.
There is also the control of Nathan Lyon, their consistent and reliable spinner who has built himself a fine Ashes record with 35 Ashes wickets in the last two series, including 19 in the last series when Australia whitewashed England (he’s one of only three from that series in the likely XI. Their attack averages (in tests);
Pat Cummins – 25.38
Josh Hazlewood – 25.75
Mitchell Starc – 28.35
Nathan Lyon – 31.83
Whilst their batting does have some holes that can be attacked – and a shorter tail than England – in David Warner and Steve Smith they have two powerhouse headliners that can more than match Joe Root.
Big batting totals on hard surfaces are key to winning in Australia, but Smith and Warner can play on any surface – Warner scored 251 in Bangladesh and Smith (below, batting) scored 499 in India when they went down only 2-1 (compare to England, who lost 4-0).
Usman Khawaja is another heavy hitter to supplement the batting lineup – he has scored scoring five centuries and a 97 in his last 14 first-innings knocks – and he absolutely loves The Gabba.
At five, they also have a rather solid option in the shape of Peter Handscomb, the first man to score a century in a day-night test. His fine start to life at the top level saw him score 399 runs at an average of 99.75 across four home Tests last summer: one against South Africa and three against Pakistan.
Against: This is not the most experienced Australia side and there are weaknesses England can exploit.
Tim Paine (above) averages 19 in the past four shield seasons, while his only century came 11 years ago; Cameron Bancroft has played well in the Shield but is low on test experience, and the same applies to Shaun Marsh.
They have a longer tail than England, which probably balances out the top order advantage they have at hosts, and if two of Hazelwood, Cummins and Starc do not get through the series – or more than one misses a test – then Steve Smith has a problem on his hands.
Australia also are not an unbeatable force – they’ve won 6 of their last 6 tests and only one of their last four series, including a 2-1 loss to a South Africa side that England was clearly superior to just a few months later.
Many of this England side have either toured Australia before or played an extended amount of cricket here, levelling the playing field significantly.
VERDICT: These are two exciting test teams, but both are flawed and quite evenly matched. This was before the crucial loss of Ben Stokes (for at least the first test, and presumably the whole tour at the time of writing), and it is easy to see either of the two teams winning.
Home advantage has arguably never been more important in test cricket and since that famous 2005 series, only once has the visiting team taken the urn and it’s fair to say that this Australia side has more first choice skill than the 2010/11 outfit that was brilliantly taken apart by a vintage England unit. In Hazelwood, Starc, Smith, Cummings, Warner and Lyon Australia have the requisite pace, spin and balance to get on top of England, although should Broad and Anderson manage to get at the batting core then the results will be completely up for grabs. Both sides won tests in the last series and the same looks likely again, so being creative with the correct scoreline should give us a strong run for our money – with a saver on an England win at 3-2 to cover our backs given the likelihood of 5 results.
1 pt 3-2 Australia (8/1 general)
1 pt 4-1 Australia (13/2 general)
1 pt 3-2 England (16/1 general)