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Battle-hardened hosts ready for flying start

Usman Khawaja showed off his strokeplay in last year’s 145 against South Africa in Adelaide
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Australia v England
BT Sport 1, starts midnight Wednesday

England's pre-tour optimism was swiftly destroyed in Brisbane four years ago as Australia romped to a 381-run victory.

Few visiting teams emerge unscathed from the Gabba – or ‘the Gabbatoir’, as the rowdy locals have christened it – and the atmosphere will be a world away from England’s gentle warm-up games.

Australia’s players should be more battle-hardened after featuring in the early rounds of the Sheffield Shield and they tend to fly out of the traps at their Brisbane stronghold.

The odd shower is forecast to disrupt play but the draw remains a 15-4 shot with England 3-1 and the Aussies a tempting 5-6.

Best bets
Australia’s stunning record at the Gabba, along with the personnel available for the opening Test, makes them worth a bet in Brisbane.

While Ben Stokes remains absent for England, the Aussies have three key pace bowlers – Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins – available for the start of the series.

There was a minor scare in Australia’s final training session as David Warner suffered a twinge in his neck but the bullish opener claimed: “I don’t think a sore neck is going to keep me out.”

Warner has scored three centuries in six Gabba Tests while skipper Steve Smith has two tons in four games and Usman Khawaja made 174 there against New Zealand in 2015.

The Gabba is Khawaja’s home ground and the Queensland left-hander is worth a bet to top-score in Australia’s first innings of the series.

He made 40 and 122 in a low-scoring Sheffield Shield win over Victoria last month – no other batsman reached 50 in the match – and he has had a major impact in recent Tests, scoring five centuries and a 97 in his last 14 first-innings knocks.

Starc, Hazlewood, Cummins and spinner Nathan Lyon, who has taken 26 wickets in six appearances at the Gabba, are a well-balanced bowling attack who could prove too sharp for the England batsmen.

Openers Mark Stoneman and Alastair Cook, along with James Vince – a surprise selection to bat at number three – face a rigorous examination against the new ball and Stokes’s absence extends the England tail as Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes all move up a place in the order.

Woakes, whose home summer was disrupted by a side injury, seems to have regained his rhythm in the warm-up games and is likely to be the quickest bowler in the England ranks.

He claimed 12 wickets in the last two games against Cricket Australia 11s in Adelaide and Townsville and, while the opposition wasn’t the most experienced, ten of Woakes’s dozen victims were top-six batsmen.

On his only previous international visit to Brisbane the Warwickshire man took 6-45 in a 2011 ODI and he has bowled with more zip since the start of the home series against Sri Lanka in May 2016.

It will be interesting to see how England’s newish faces in the top five cope with the Ashes pressure – opener Stoneman is 11-2 to top-score in the first innings with Vince 6-1 and Dawid Malan 8-1.

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Australia have a formidable record in Brisbane

Venue
Australia have won 11 of their last 13 Gabba Tests and are unbeaten in Brisbane since a 1988 defeat to the West Indies.

Visiting teams often struggle on the fresh, pacy pitches at Brisbane – England’s last three first-innings scores there were 136, 260 and 157, Pakistan made just 142 last December, and Victoria bowled out Queensland for 166 last month before being skittled for 148 themselves.

Team news
Cameron Bancroft is set to open the batting on his debut and partner Warner is confident he will overcome a stiff neck.

Australia should name a three-man pace attack with Jackson Bird and Chadd Sayers missing out.

Jake Ball’s recovery from an ankle injury has been quicker than expected and he is set to get the nod over Craig Overton.

Malan’s solid form in the warm-up games means he starts the series at number five, with Gary Ballance the tourists’ reserve batsman.

Weather
There have been frequent showers in the build-up and there could be brief rain delays on days one and four.

The forecast for the rest of the match is sunny and dry with highs of 29C.


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Starc, Hazlewood, Cummins and spinner Nathan Lyon are a well-balanced bowling attack who could prove too sharp for the England batsmen
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