We are almost there! We are almost ready to continue the most storied rivalry in world cricket!
It is Australia versus England in the 2017-18 Ashes Series, and it begins on Thursday with the first test match from The Gabba in Brisbane, and there has been a lot of debate in the build-up on both teams.
Australia are ranked fifth on the International Cricket Council (ICC) Test Match Rankings, the same position that they were on those rankings before the 2010-11 Ashes Series, a series which England won 3-1, and a rating that is 13 points less than the rating they had back before that series. There has been plenty of debate as to who should be in the Australian Cricket Team, and many people, including former players and so-called experts, have made their feelings known as to what they think about the selections made for the opening test match of the series, in particular the selections of Cameron Bancroft, Shaun Marsh, and Tim Paine.
Looking at these three divisive selections, Bancroft was a near-certainty to be selected in the team, having scored 442 runs across the opening three matches of the 2017-18 Sheffield Shield season for Western Australia at an average of 110.50, highlighted by a wonderful innings of 228 not out in the first innings against South Australia at the WACA, but what no one seemingly expected was that Matt Renshaw was going to be dropped in favour of Bancroft, who although was struggling with his form a touch, having made 70 runs across three Sheffield Shield matches, seemed under no pressure for his spot in the team just a few weeks ago.
Marsh was another one of those divisive selections, and although he has made three half-centuries so far this season in the Sheffield Shield, you feel like his level is going down a touch, and many people would have preferred the selectors to go with either Bancroft in this middle-order position, or if they had to drop Renshaw, to go with a younger player, such as a Jake Lehmann, or a player that could a match-winner for Australia, such as the ultra-talented, but potentially-flawed Glenn Maxwell.
However, the selection which probably created the most debate was the wicket-keeping position, and it came as a huge shock to many people that Tim Paine, and not Peter Nevill or Matthew Wade, was selected. Paine has battled a number of injuries, especially with his fingers for a number of years, but when he has been fit, Paine has proven himself to being a great gloveman, and with two half-centuries in his last two first-class matches, compared with zero between Nevill and Wade across six first-class matches, and it was a very easy decision in the end to go with Paine.
However, when you look at the Australian team, the likes of Steve Smith, David Warner, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, and Nathan Lyon will be expected to perform strongly throughout the series, but the key players who could decide whether Australia wins this series or not will be the likes of Usman Khawaja, Peter Handscomb, and Pat Cummins, who along with the five I mentioned before, will be under pressure to deliver decisive contributions for Australia with bat, or in the case of Cummins, ball.
England are ranked third on the International Cricket Council (ICC) Test Match Rankings, one position higher than where they were before the 2010-11 Ashes Series, but with a rating seven points lower compared to before that series. In general, England appear to be a more settled team before this series, which can be a good thing, but they have also had their issues in the lead-up to this series, especially in regards to Ben Stokes.
Stokes was involved in a brawl outside a nightclub in Bristol back in September, and while there was damning video footage showing Stokes continually punching a person into submission, there is speculation that he may not be charged for what he did by local authorities, and could be in the England Ashes squad sooner than we may think.
Also, despite being more settled, I think there are some question marks on some players, not on the likes of Alastair Cook, Joe Root, Ben Stokes (if he plays a part in the series), Jonny Bairstow, Moeen Ali, Stuart Broad, and James Anderson, but on the fringe players looking to fill the more open spots in the team.
Mark Stoneman looks set to fill the opener’s role alongside Cook despite his modest first-class record, but has passed 50 on all four occasions so far in the three tour matches for England, including scoring 111 against the Cricket Australia XI in Townsville.
James Vince also seems to be the likely candidate to bat at number three despite his mixed form, while Dawid Malan looks a near-certainty to bat at number five, and Chris Woakes, along with Craig Overton look set to be the extra bowling options to support Anderson, Broad, and Moeen Ali for the first test match in Brisbane.
So, who is going to win the series?
While I don’t think they will win 5-nil this time, I am favouring Australia to win the series by a scoreline of 3-1.
I think Australia will win the first test match in Brisbane, but England will hit back immediately to win the first-ever day/night Ashes Test Match at the Adelaide Oval. Australia will respond to this by winning what appears to be the final Ashes Test Match at the WACA in Perth inside four days thanks to a dominant performance by the Australian fast bowlers, before England respond in stoic style to force a draw at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to keep their chances of retaining the Ashes alive.
At the fifth and final test match of the series at the Sydney Cricket Ground, Australia will dominate most the match, forcing England into the position, where under normal circumstances, they would be forced to play for a draw in the fourth and final innings of the match. However, England decide to go after the massive target, but get bowled out with about eight overs left in the test match, losing the final test match by between 30 and 50 runs to give Australia back The Ashes.