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Monday, 21 January, 2019

Relentless runscorers give Aussies the edge

Batting collapses could scupper England hopes

Usman Khawaja (left), David Warner and Steve Smith rack up the runs in home Tests
1 of 1

Australia v England
Starts midnight Wednesday, BT Sport 1
It's been feast or famine for England in Australia recently, with the glorious 3-1 triumph in 2010-11 sandwiched between 5-0 routs in 2006-07 and 2013-14. 

Joe Root – dropped for the final Test of the last Ashes tour – is 17-5 to lead England to a series victory over an Australia side who many considered rock-solid favourites until they actually named their squad for the first Test.

With world-class talent and alarming flaws in both squads, it promises to be another intriguing battle for the urn.

The case for Australia
Piling up massive totals is the key to winning Test matches on flat pitches in Australia – as England demonstrated in 2010-11 – and the Aussies look well equipped to put the tourists under scoreboard pressure.

They have two of the modern Test greats in David Warner and skipper Steve Smith while the classy Usman Khawaja has racked up some stunning stats of his own in recent home series.

Last December, Pakistan scored 443 batting first in Melbourne, yet still lost by an innings, and Australia gave India a rare battering on their own turf, winning February’s Test in Pune by 333 runs.

Peter Handscomb has nailed down the number-five spot with some gutsy and assured displays in his first ten Test matches while England’s capacity for big scores has been dented by the absence of Ben Stokes.

Stokes, Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali have bailed out an underperforming top five and, with the reliable Root under colossal pressure in his only his third series as captain, the Aussies may well scent blood.

Mark Stoneman, James Vince and Dawid Malan have scored three fifties in 15 Test matches between them and Alastair Cook, the hero of 2010-11, averages less than 30 (with a top score of 96) in three subsequent Ashes series.

Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood are all fit for the Gabba, where the Aussies are unbeaten in nearly 30 years, and England’s bowling attack lacks raw pace.

James Anderson, Stuart Broad and the improving Chris Woakes are superb operators at home but any chin music they try is likely to be more Enya than AC/DC.

Moeen had a wonderful summer with the ball but his rival off spinner Nathan Lyon offers great control and wicket-taking threat, allowing Smith to rotate his quick men.

England are hugely unbalanced without Stokes, a key batsman, influential bowler and their most dynamic fielder, and even with him in the side they have been frustratingly inconsistent.

They won their summer series at home to South Africa and the West Indies but in both contests they followed up easy first-Test wins with shocking defeats in the second games. As they discovered in 2006-07 and 2013-14, when things start to go wrong down under it can be very difficult to turn the tour around.

The case for England
There is no escaping the issues surrounding England’s build-up, with the Stokes affair compounded by a shortage of batting options and injuries to bowlers such as Toby Roland-Jones, Steven Finn and Jamie Porter.

But England don’t have a monopoly on selection issues and fitness problems and Australia’s squad for the first two Tests prompted a barrage of criticism from pundits and ex-players.

Opener Cameron Bancroft seems to have been picked on the basis of three-match form while Shaun Marsh’s Test record is mediocre and Tim Paine isn’t expected to match fellow keeper Brad Haddin’s heroics of 2013-14.

Home advantage is a massive factor in the Ashes – England’s win in 2010-11 was the only victory for the away team in the last eight series – but Smith’s Australia side are not exactly regular winners.

Their last five Test series have been a 3-0 defeat in Sri Lanka, a 2-1 home loss to South Africa, a 3-0 home win over Pakistan, a 2-1 reverse in India and a 1-1 draw in Bangladesh in September.

Those struggles in Asia may not be the most relevant formguide to a home Ashes series but there are enough question marks over Australia to give England hope.

Getting Starc and Cummins through a five-Test series unscathed would be a huge bonus for the Aussies while Hazlewood is also returning from injury and fellow pacemen James Pattinson and Nathan Coulter-Nile are sidelined.

If England can upset the odds and avoid defeat in Brisbane then they should have a better chance of victory in the day/night Test in Adelaide, where Anderson, Broad and Woakes can get the pink ball seaming around.

Their warm-up games against teams of youthful first-class rookies were of limited value but opener Stoneman scored 85, 61, 51 and 111 to boost his confidence going into the Gabba cauldron.

Malan, with a couple of fifties and a century in the warm-ups, should also be feeling more at home in an England shirt, and if Cook and Root can stand firm against the new ball then there is the destructive potential of Moeen and Jonny Bairstow further down the order.

There are plenty of imponderables for punters weighing up their Ashes bets with uncertainty over the availability of Ben Stokes, doubts over the long-term fitness of Australia’s bowlers, as well as the first day/night Ashes Test – the second game of the series – in Adelaide.

What we do know is that home advantage is hugely significant in Ashes series. Australia were 13-8 outsiders to win the 2013-14 series before romping to a 5-0 win while England landed odds of 4-1 in their home victory in 2015.

Australia have a core of players – Smith, Warner, Khawaja, Hazlewood and Lyon – who perform at a consistently high standard, especially in home Test matches.

Starc and Cummins will have to be smartly handled by Smith but they are fit and firing for the Gabba, where Australia usually make a flying start.

England were bowled out for under 200 in six of ten innings on the last tour and their batsmen still struggle to strike the right balance between positivity and recklessness.

Top-order batting collapses could be particularly costly with Starc targeting a weak England tail and the Aussies look the more solid of two exciting but flawed Test teams.

Australia to win 3-1
2pts 5-1 general
Australia to win 4-1
1pt 7-1 188Bet

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Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood are all fit for the Gabba, where the Aussies are unbeaten in nearly 30 years, and England’s bowling attack lacks raw pace
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