It’s been 18 long months since cricket fans were spoilt rotten by the double Ashes summer of 2013; this hiatus, combined with two fiercely competitive teams, means that the upcoming first test at Sophia Gardens is one of the most hotly anticipated of the decade.
Australia, who have developed something of a consistent winning formula of late, will be the overall favourites to take the first Test, with Bet365 Sports offering odds of 10/11 to win. Don't write off England, however, as the home side arrive in Cardiff with fire in their bellies following a disappointing World Cup campaign.
Following a week of record-breaking heat and very little rainfall, analysts were beginning to speculate that Cardiff’s Sophia Gardens might be something of a spinner’s deck come the start of play. This all changed, however, with news of a wetter forecast and the ground staff’s announcement that the pitch might be better thought of as a ‘classic’ English track.
Having only hosted two Test matches to date, the pitch itself remains something of an unknown, and it’ll be particularly interesting to see how the captains navigate the toss come Friday. Both teams are currently priced 10/11 to win the toss by Bet365. If Australia win it, punters may see Michael Clarke adopt the aggressive tactic of bowling first, spurred on by a bowler’s deck and clear skies, while an England win would most likely see Alastair Cook play it safe and bat first.
Australia’s squad of 17 was weakened somewhat last week by the news that veteran pace man Ryan Harris was withdrawing through injury, the old master being replaced by young speedster Pat Cummins. Cummins joins Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood in Australia’s pace attack. The latter three are priced by Coral Sports at 11/4, 9/4 and 3/1 respectively to take the top bowler crown.
Elsewhere, Michael Clarke, Steve Smith – who's 8/1 with Bet365 to be named man of the match, wicket keeper Brad Haddin and spinner Nathan Lyon are all surefire starters, though Chris Rodgers and Shaun Marsh battle it out to partner David Warner at the front of the order. Shane Watson and Mitch Marsh, meanwhile, will be vying for the side’s all-rounder slot.
Since their 2013 whitewash loss at the hands of a ruthless Aussie side, England have been forced to rebuild their squad from the ground up. The home side will be encouraged by the renewed attacking confidence displayed in the one-all tie with a competitive New Zealand last month, and may elect to field a very similar-looking team.
A provisional 13-man squad has been announced for the Ashes opener, but the England selectors have a couple of head-scratchers of their own to deal with before naming a final XI: Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid will fight it out for the spinner’s berth, while Steve Finn and Mark Wood will both be looking to join the pace attack. Captain Cook, meanwhile, will be looking to improve his own first-test form: in the opening tests of his last six series as captain – including the 2013 and 2013/14 Ashes series – Cook hasn’t reached 20 runs in the first innings. If he can break this curse, he may just give his side the start they need. He's currently priced 7/2 with Winner Sports to achieve top England batsman in the first innings.
Australia face a big challenge going into this opening test. The England side, spurred on by the disappointment of the most recent series, will be looking to avoid another whitewash. Their new crop of fresh talent is an exciting, if volatile, addition to a steady, experienced cast.
For all this optimism, though, it’s hard to look past the home side’s recent track record: a hiding by the Kiwis down under and a dull tied series in the Caribbean don't make easy reading for England fans. Australia, on the other hand, seem to have struck upon the consistency and confidence that’s needed to win a test series away from home.