Before a ball has been bowled the Ashes is shaping up to be a series like no other between the two old foes. Bubble life, a La Nina weather event, a deposed Australia captain because of a sex scandal, and significant doubts that the fifth and final Test will happen at all make it unique.
Unfortunately, punters don’t like chaos. We love the status quo. Instead of relying on a settled Australia team to demoralise the poms on hard and fast pitches, and their fans and media to give them an ear-bashing away from them, England could well be gifted the best conditions they’ve ever had for a rare success.
It is not as straightforward as odds of 1.341/3 Australia to win the series suggest. England are 6.05/1 and the draw is 9.6017/2,
The most significant factor is the weather. A La Nina is supposed to be a rare event. In fact, it’s happened for the second consecutive year. It promises, in short, English-style conditions. Wet and overcast. There are already predictions of a washed out first Test in Brisbane, due to start on Tuesday night.
England need as much help as they can get. If the Kookaburra ball can swing for longer than usual, James Anderson is, of course, bang in the game. If it doesn’t, he will be reduced to a stock bowler hoping for reverse from the old ball.
Do not underestimate the importance, either, of England locking themselves away with family in their own resort. Any England tourist who has been beaten Down Under knows that the relentless abuse from the Aussie fans is part of the national gameplan. The ‘fair dinkums’ pummel and soften England’s fragile resolve, the players snap it.
Perhaps to the emotionally cold, this might sound like straw clutching. But England +1.5 on the handicap is not the shabbiest wager at 2.1011/10.
Of course there is a caveat with all of this. And it’s a biggy. England are not a crack unit.
When they last won there in 2010 they came into the series off the back of five series wins and one draw. Not to mention being the best team in the world. This time they’ve lost their last three series, two of those at home in their own La Nina.
And for all the their desperate hope that the ball bends, careful what you wish for. There’s no evidence England play the moving ball better than Australia. Quite the reverse. The 2-2 draw in 2019, which should have been a 3-2 win for Australia had Tim Paine not batted second at The Oval, was achieved because they were superior.
England’s big lesson from that series was to improve their batting. They’ve learned nowt. The opening partnership is still unsettled and there is talk they could ditch Haseeb Hameed for Zak Crawley as Rory Burns‘ partner. Then there’s the rumoured return to Jonny Bairstow in the middle-order. Bairstow averaged 23 in the 2019 series. Ollie Pope should be raging.
It’s not all doom. Ollie Robinson is their big find with the ball and if England are smart, they will make him attack leader. That’s no guarantee though. Ben Stokes’s return is huge because he is the one player Australia cannot match.
Which brings us to the importance of Jack Leach, who must match his opposite number. You cannot win in Australia without a spinner bowling dry from one end and taking wickets. In 2010, Graeme Swann was vital for England. Is Leach in the same class?
Before that series, Swann had an average of 26, an economy rate of 2.9 and a strike rate of 60. He had played 24 Tests.
Leach has played eight fewer but his record is almost identical. He averages 29, has an economy of 3.1 and a strike rate of 59.
That is a chunk of evidence that England should wholeheartedly back Leach to play in every single Test. Maybe they should even tell him so immediately. It would do wonders for his confidence.
Australia are in decent shape. Marnus Labuschagne has the potential to do to England what Steve Smith did two years ago. David Warner seems revitalised. Alex Carey is an upgrade on Paine.
With the ball new captain Pat Cummins, spinner Nathan Lyon and three rotating from Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and Jhye Richardson really should have too much for that England batting.
So how to bet? Well, the temptation is to play the series correct score. That is until one realises that the fifth and final Perth Test may not happen at all because Western Australia is steadfast on quarantine rules which England just will not sign up for. It could be moved to either Melbourne or Sydney. The long-term wet weather forecast also throws up confusion.
It is hard not to reckon that the day-night second Test at Adelaide is pivotal. Australia have sensational form in the format so it’s no given that it reduces the gulf for England. But it is probably the tourists’ best chance.
Could it be then that a 2-2 or 1-1 draw is the value at 9.6017/2 and 46.045/1 respectively because the prices keep, at this early stage, the unfathomable collection of toss importance in Adelaide, cancellations, venue changes and the weather on side? Australia to edge it 2-1 stands out at 12.011/1 too.
All you need to know about Australia’s chosen ones – here