The Ashes is a matter of days away. England’s preparation has been underwhelming, and Ben Stokes’ absence remains the biggest cricket related story, despite the all-rounder being in the wrong hemisphere.
Australia, meanwhile, have called up Tim Paine, a wicketkeeper who has not scored a red-ball century in over a decade. Their squad was met with just as much scepticism as England’s, which is no mean feat.
As optimistic English fans adjust their sleeping patterns to drowsily watch the opening delivery at the Gabba, predictions are popping up everywhere there’s even a whisper of the Ashes. The vast majority have Australia winning 5-0, though some blindingly hopeful England supporters envisage a 4-1 defeat.
Before the Tests begin, I am going to take a look at 888sport’s Ashes betting markets for the series as a whole.
It’s of no surprise to see two Australians top this market. Steve Smith and David Warner are at 3/1, followed by Joe Root at 9/2.
Smith has had trouble against England when the ball moves. Fortunately, he has no such concern at home with the lifeless Kookaburra ball. His mammoth test average of 59.66 amazes me every time I see it, such is his awkwardness at the crease. The Aussie skipper continues to produce at the highest level of the sport, though, and has been scoring runs freely for New South Wales.
The 3/1 price is on the short side, however, as it is for David Warner. The aggressive opener is one of the most fearsome players in the sport, and could win a Test single-handedly. The 2/1 for Warner to score the fastest half-century this season is better value, though.
Root had a torrid time in the last Ashes away from home. Being dropped in the dying embers of that tour was the moment his international career turned a corner, and the elegant right-hander became one of the best players in the world. Conversion remains a problem, however, which makes that 9/2 unappealing.
Even after a truly torrid run of form, Alastair Cook looks the value in this market at 16/1. The former England captain broke record after record in the glorious 2010/11 tour, and – if England are to get close to replicating that – Cook will have to reproduce similar innings. The pace and bounce favours his back-foot game, and a player of his pedigree at 16/1 to be top batsman is well worth considering.
As with the bat, two Australians lead the race to be the top bowler. It’s Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood out in front, sitting at 9/4 and 3/1 respectively.
Starc is the man England will fear most. Capable of hooping the old ball, and doing so at a pace seldom seen in the Test arena, he could torment England just as Mitchell Johnson has in the past.
He is not the snarling, pantomime villain like Johnson, but Starc is at least as dangerous in full flow. Injuries are always a worry for the Sydney-born left-armer, however, making the 9/4 a bigger risk than his skill suggests.
His supporting cast is led by Hazlewood, who will play a role similar to the one Ryan Harris did for Johnson. Control, a bit of movement, and surprising bounce make him a complementary partner for Starc.
The towering Hazlewood is far less likely to pick up four or five wickets than Starc, or even than Pat Cummins – who is at 7/1 in this market. The 3/1 on Hazlewood is a bit short.
Looking at England’s options, it is James Anderson up first at 9/2. The king of swing is wise, and has a plethora of tricks for testing days in the Australian heat, but I can’t see any value in that price when lateral movement is so infrequent.
For those willing an England victory, Stuart Broad at 15/2 is a far better price. Broad thrives on the bitter competition of Ashes cricket, and the Nottinghamshire seamer could just be the man to ignite an improbable victory this winter.
My favourite pick from this market is out at 8/1. Nathan Lyon has 12 five-fors, he is a canny, deceptive bowler. With England facing an onslaught of pace, his off-spin will seem like welcome respite. England are no strangers to foolish batting against spin bowlers, and Lyon will be beneficiary from that.
Will the Ashes be retained?
With Stokes unlikely to feature in the series, and carrying a batting line-up riddled with inexperience, the pessimism from England fans is understandable. All of it seems so much worse when we are forced to dredge through the painful memories of two of the last three Ashes tours, too.
Australia are far from the juggernaut that England faced for the 1990s and early years of this century, however. Their batting is nearly as flawed as England’s, and the fitness concerns for Starc and Cummins linger around the build-up to this series.
The two teams on paper do not scream ‘whitewash’. Nor did they in 2006 or 2013, though. This could be a classic Ashes series if England can avoid a hammering at Fortress Gabba.
Lose, especially if it’s emphatic, in Brisbane, and England’s chances of retaining the Ashes will be virtually nil. The hosts are 8/11 to win at the Gabba, and could then stride to a comfortable series win. The 4-0 at 7/1 suddenly looks very good value.
So much depends on how the series is - both in score line and balance of play - heading to Adelaide. Along with Sydney, the day-nighter at the Oval is England’s best chance of notching a victory.
Negativity is natural given the circumstances for England, but a thrashing is far from guaranteed. A heavy defeat in the First Test will certainly have me worrying that it could be another whitewash, but, until then, I think this will be a relatively even series and the 39/20 on England to keep hold of the urn is a great price.
TIP: Series to finish 2-2 @ 8/1
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*