Reckon depleted England are on a hiding to nothing in this winter's Ashes? Think again.
Ed Kemp of Wisden.com lays out the case for Joe Root's men retaining the Ashes, live on BT Sport.
1) Australia's selection surprises
The sagest of judges have had hosts Australia as hot favourites for this series against a patchy England side shorn of Ben Stokes. But the tide might just be turning. Look at their shock selections for the first Test at Brisbane, generously described by Shane Warne as “confused”.
Steve Smith’s team have replaced highly-thought-of young opener Matt Renshaw with rookie Cameron Bancroft, recalled the 34-year-old Shaun Marsh for the umpteenth time at number six (meaning they will have no fifth bowling option) and, most surprisingly of all, picked Tim Paine as wicketkeeper.
Paine played four Tests in 2010 but has since only played in limited-overs cricket for Australia, and edges out favourite for the spot Peter Nevill despite only averaging 29.12 with the bat in first-class cricket and not being the first-choice keeper for his state team Tasmania.
As much as anything, the squad announcement has undermined the usual coordinated attempts to unsettle England as the Australian media and public redirect their critical energy towards their own side.
2) Wobbly batting coming good?
England’s most glaring weakness is in their top five where, Alastair Cook and Joe Root aside, they lack high pedigree options and look vulnerable to the collapse.
But they have at least nailed down their line-up early on and stuck with it. Mark Stoneman opens, James Vince – perhaps the most controversial choice of all – will bat at three, and Dawid Malan is inked in at five.
All of them have made runs in the warm-up matches, with both left-handers Stoneman and Malan hitting centuries against CA XI in England’s last tour match before the Gabba. Although the challenge and pressure will be ramped up significantly in the Tests, they do at least appear to be hitting form at the right time.
3) Middle-order battleground
While both sides have two established batsmen apiece (for the Aussies it’s David Warner and Steve Smith), the hosts look just as wobbly if England can get through those key men and take early wickets.
In fact, while the tourists boast a strong six and seven in Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali, Australian fans are still expressing their anger at the selection of Marsh and Paine in those positions.
If Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes make the most of the new ball, there’s a chance to apply significant pressure and even turn the Aussie public further against their own team, as happened during England’s 3-1 win in 2010/11.
4) Fitness first
Australia’s trump card is the pace and hostility of their bowling attack, with Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins both keen to emulate the fiery series-defining display of Mitchell Johnson in 2013/14’s whitewash.
But neither has anything like a perfect fitness record; indeed, Cummins has played just five Tests since his 2011 debut due to constant injury complaints and though attack leader Starc has managed more than that, it would be a surprise if either were to complete all five Tests of the series.
The Ashes could therefore be decided by which attack keeps its best bowlers on the field the longest, and in that regard England might well see themselves as favourites, given Anderson’s impressive fitness record (and the small matter of 506 Test wickets). Further incentive for England’s batsmen to keep the Aussies in the field for as long as possible…
5) Under the radar
The low expectations attached to this England touring party might in themselves enable the players to perform in the positive, free-spirited way they have famously come to prefer.
While the disastrous tour of four years ago saw them travel to Australia as favourites, Joe Root’s side this time round have been given little hope in the build-up and can potentially use that comparative lack of pressure to their advantage, particularly in the first Test.
As BT Sport pundit Michael Vaughan says: “The Aussies haven’t lost at Brisbane in 30-odd years so realistically we’re not under any pressure. Everyone expects us to lose this one but can we surprise a few people? The crowd will be expecting Starc to blow us away. They will expect us to look intimidated. Can we play in a controlled fashion? That is what I’ll be looking for.”
So, there you have it. The urn’s in the bag…
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