The first Test match of the 2017/18 Ashes series begins on Thursday. As always, England head to Brisbane to play at one of Australia’s favourite venues, the Gabba. The hosts have lost a mere nine times in 58 Tests at the ground. England have not won there since 1986. Neither of these facts look all that promising for the tourists, do they?
Well, the omens do NOT bode well for England. James Vince has shown he cannot avoid edging to the slips in Tests, Moeen Ali had his build-up disrupted by injuries, and there are gaping holes – one of which will be filled by Vince – either side of Joe Root in the middle order.
Positives can be found in those warm-up games, mind. Mark Stoneman has been scoring like Don Bradman, and Alastair Cook found a bit of form after a really torrid 2017. Away from that, the featherbed they played on over the weekend has slapped down the confidence of some bowlers.
The Gabba will be hostile this week. After the pain of defeat in England in 2015, the Aussie fans will be desperate to see the visitors rattled. Reminders of the shambolic 5-0 defeat last time down under will be common, and the Australian players will not be short of a sledge or two for England’s less certain batsmen.
All this suggests a tough first innings for England. Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc are all set to be fully fit for Brisbane, and will give England an examination like Stoneman, Vince and Malan have never suffered before. The pace and bounce is a far cry from anything we witness in front of 15 fans in the County Championship. Australia are 13/25 to carry a first innings lead.
Even with the prospect of Starc steaming in, there could be value in an England batsman to top score in the first innings. Alastair Cook – who dominated the 2010/11 tour – is at 6/1 for that honour. Given his knack of going big when it matters, and his majestic 235 not out in that tour, I would be looking to that as one of the best bets from the opening Test.
Turning to the guys charged with taking 20 wickets at the Gabba, there’s good value in Stuart Broad to take more wickets than both Cummins and Chris Woakes in the first innings. At 33/20, Broad – if he can adjust his length correctly – could be a real bargain and might be the man to expose some of the fragilities in the Australian batting order.
After all the talk about bounce and thoughts of stumps cartwheeling, it’s only fair we briefly look at the spin bowlers. Brisbane is not the best place for off-spinners like Moeen and Nathan Lyon, but both have become very effective Test match bowlers.
Australia will go out of their way to attack Moeen, however, which could force England to overbowl their seamers. The visitors are less likely to take that approach with Lyon, and will be happy to milk him at three-an-over.
If he can keep his flight right, Moeen might just have some scalps handed to him by frenetic Aussie batting. He is at EVENS to take more wickets than Lyon in the first innings.
A draw would be a far better result for England than Australia given the history at the Gabba. Unfortunately for Trevor Bayliss and his side, though, it’s pretty unlikely given the batting line-ups that will be named at the toss. Australia to win at 3/4 looks a bit longer than you might expect from a glance at the predictions, but it doesn’t exactly jump out of my screen.
*Odds subject to change - correct at time of writing*