It is a matter of days until the Ashes begins. One of the most hotly anticipated sporting contests has already seen jibes and ‘predictions’ fired across from each trench. England have been met with mockery for some of the names in their squad, while Australia’s options are not exactly Shane Warne and Steve Waugh reincarnate.
The absence of Ben Stokes looms over a series distinctly lacking superstars. Stokes’ England future remains unknown, but he leaves a gaping hole in an England side with weaknesses that are traditionally exposed down under.
Australia are far from invincible right now, though. So, before a red – or pink – ball is bowled, we are going to take a look at each of the venues…
The Gabba, Brisbane
The Gabba is a stunning venue. Home to England’s improbable fightback in 2010-11, and some far less enjoyable memories in the whitewashes that sandwich that series, Brisbane has hosted the opening Ashes Test since 1936.
The aforementioned Warne was particularly menacing at the Gabba. The surface tended to aid his wrist spin, and the spitting bounce made him an even tougher prospect. Nathan Lyon and Moeen Ali are not exactly the same calibre, but that bounce could come in handy for the Australians who have tormented England with the short ball in the recent past.
Batsman do have a fair chance of this track, however. It is perhaps the most balanced pitch of this series, and will give England’s frail looking line-up a chance. If they cannot cash in here, it could be a very long tour.
England have not won at the Gabba since 1986 - the Aussies are 3/4 to win the first Test. Australia have only lost nine times in 58 matches at the once-charming Brisbane arena. It does not bode well for Joe Root and his men, but it does show that avoiding defeat in this test could the springboard to a magical tour.
Adelaide Oval, Adelaide
Drop-in pitches have changed things dramatically at Adelaide. The wickets can vary pretty significantly as a result, which makes this a pretty tricky one to predict.
There is the added lottery of a day/night Test match. That means pink balls, hooping twilight swing, and a large leap into the unknown for everyone involved.
This Test will make history as the first Ashes Test to be played, in part, under the lights, and England will be hoping they can make their own nugget of history by recording a tenth victory in their 32nd match at this iconic venue.
The Aussies do not boast the same dominance at Adelaide as at the Gabba, though they have won 39 of their 75 Tests at the Oval. England will see this Test as one of their best chances.
WACA Ground, Perth
The WACA was renowned as the quickest pitch in world cricket for decades. Spells like Curtly Ambrose and Mitchell Johnson produced in the past were indicative of this venue as a dream for hostile fast bowling, so long as they did not get lured into the whizzing the ball past the batsman’s ears.
It is not the rapid track it once was. The Fremantle Doctor – a breeze that sweeps along the nearby river – eases the blistering Perth heat, and can aid some swing bowling. The Kookaburra ball does little to help those hoping to hoop it in the air, though. Sorry, Jimmy.
The hosts have won 24 of 43 tests at the ground. England, meanwhile, have an appalling record, having won just once in 13 visits. Defeat here could signal the end of a successful series for the tourists and our current markets show a home Ashes victory is currently 2/5.
Melbourne Cricket Ground, Melbourne
Many Australians – and plenty of English supporters – would tell you the series will be all over by the time we reach the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne Cricket Ground.
A hostile crowd of 90,000 creates an atmosphere unrivalled in Test match cricket, as it bellows around the spectacular bowl. After some lifeless decks during the latter part of the last century, the pitches have been relatively even of late.
Neither bat nor ball will have a notable advantage during the first couple of days particularly, it could boil down to which team can nurture the ball to generate reverse swing.
England will be optimistic if they are level coming to ‘The G’. With 20 victories in 55 Tests, Root’s side can draw on happy memories of this ground, including bowling Australia out for 98 on the first morning two tours ago.
Sydney Cricket Ground, Sydney
Sydney is the least welcoming Ashes ground for fast bowlers. Spinners have thrived there, though Graeme Swann struggled to make much of an impact in the 2010-11 tour.
A slower pitch tones down the volume of the chin music, which could be a pretty sweet relief for the England batsmen by the time we get to the Fifth Test.
Australia have played 105 Tests at the SCG, winning 58 of them. England are the only team to beat them there since 1995, but the tourists have done relatively well there over the years. In 55 Tests, they have won 22, and will be in with a decent chance if Sydney is to host a decider.
There have been two Tests at the ground since the start of 2016. The Aussies scored over 500 against Pakistan earlier this year, and split the wickets pretty evenly. Lyon and Ali will again have a massive part to play, and we could see both teams play two spinners.
TIP: Even with all the turmoil, the 2/1 price on England to retain the Ashes is a good one.
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*