The Ashes 2019: Assessing England and Australia ahead of eagerly anticipated series
With the Cricket World Cup in the rear-view mirror, attention turns to an Ashes series that will be hard-pressed to produce the same kind of drama.
Following their triumph over New Zealand in what many consider the greatest cricket game ever played, England are out to make it arguably the best year in their history by regaining the urn.
Australia, meanwhile, are aiming to claim a first Ashes win in England since 2001, but start that quest at Edgbaston, a venue with few happy memories for the tourists and plenty for the hosts.
So ahead of Thursday's opening day at the site of England's semi-final demolition of the old enemy, we assess the state of the two rival nations.
What a catch from @root66 at Edgbaston in 2015! #Ashes pic.twitter.com/maLW7mJz5y
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) July 31, 2019
There remains no definitive solution to England's interminable struggles to find a settled opening pair, though they appear poised to put faith in one of their World Cup heroes, Jason Roy, despite his inexperience at Test level.
Roy scored 72 in the second innings of his Test debut against Ireland last week, having only managed five with his first knock, as he looked to adapt his devastating game to the longest format, but the challenge of attempting to see off the new red ball against the Australia attack will be a daunting one.
It would be a less imposing test if he had a seasoned partner at the top but he will instead likely be occupying the crease alongside another player for whom the Ashes is a completely new experience, with Rory Burns having reached 50 just three times in 16 innings for Surrey this season.
To protect against a collapse should England's openers continue to fail, Joe Root is set to move up the order and provide a steadying force at number three with Joe Denly dropping to four.
3 - Joe Root's highest Test score (254 v Pakistan, 2016) came when he played as a number 3. Responsibility. #Ashes #ENGvAUS pic.twitter.com/NrPmsFYMzM
— OptaJim (@OptaJim) July 30, 2019
The picture in the middle order could hardly be more contrasting. Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes give England's batting substantial depth but they and Sam Curran, who has too often had to mount recovery efforts early in his Test career, will hope to avoid being tasked with salvaging innings on a regular basis.
If the top order can provide some solidity, England's strength in numbers with the bat could prove the difference in a series where the ball may dominate.
The batting order undoubtedly remains the biggest question mark for Australia as well, even though the returns of Steve Smith and David Warner from suspension will provide a huge boost.
Warner, despite taking a blow to the thigh in training, is set to open the batting. However, the question is whether that will be alongside Marcus Harris or the third party in the infamous ball-tampering scandal, Cameron Bancroft. The selectors will have to weigh up the risk of throwing Bancroft into the fire at Edgbaston, where he will undoubtedly be targeted by the home fans, versus going with an opener whose inability to convert starts has previously hurt Australia.
There will be significant pressure on Usman Khawaja to finally deliver on English pitches at three, which would help alleviate some of the burden on former skipper and talisman Smith.
Travis Head should provide a counter-attacking force from five, but the other big call for Edgbaston is at the spot below him.
Mitchell Marsh, Matthew Wade and Marnus Labuschagne are all in contention to bat at six in the opener, the latter the leading run-scorer in County Championship Division Two, and it is a decision Australia can ill-afford to get wrong as they seek a batsman to protect a tail that is unlikely to wag with as much effectiveness as England's.
At the start of the year, the prospect of Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood both missing out on the first Test would have seemed a preposterous one, with the thought of the former being omitted for Australia even more bemusing after his incredible performances at the World Cup.
Yet, such is the depth of the tourists' attack that Starc faces the very real possibility of watching the opener from the pavilion with Pat Cummins, James Pattinson and Nathan Lyon all apparent locks to play in the first Test and Peter Siddle having re-emerged as a genuine option in the attack.
Saving Starc for Lord's - the site of his stunning reverse-swing yorker to Ben Stokes at the World Cup – and Headingley, where swing will be a greater factor, may not be the worst policy. If Australia end their 18-year Edgbaston hoodoo and then get to unleash a fresh Starc and Hazlewood against a batting order accustomed to collapses, they will be in a very strong position.
England's biggest call with the bowlers appears to be whether to end the Anderson-Broad axis early.
Should they choose to do so it would be Stuart Broad to miss out, with World Cup final Super Over hero Jofra Archer in the running to bring his staggering raw pace to the highest level of the red-ball game.
After his Herculean effort in said final, Stokes has an opportunity to add to his national-hero status and the all-rounder should be well rested in terms of his bowling having carried little of the load during the World Cup.
Curran and Woakes provide further world-class all-round options and, even if the latter misses out on Edgbaston, he is almost certain to be back in the frame for Lord's, where he has an average of under 10.
9.8 - Chris Woakes has taken 24 Test wickets at an average of just 9.8 at Lord's; the third-best rate of any seamer at a single venue (20+ dismissals). Match. #ENGvIRE pic.twitter.com/Ubzikh8GCn
— OptaJim (@OptaJim) July 26, 2019
Moeen Ali will be hoping to firmly re-establish himself as England's best spin option, while Olly Stone is another who offers exciting pace.
Out of action with a side injury, Mark Wood could yet return for the last two Tests and the fast bowler may be a crucial late addition for an attack that could tire in a gruelling five-match, seven-week series.
England are favourites to regain the urn on home soil, as Australia have not won an Ashes away series since 2001 and the last four series have gone to the home side.
The hosts prevailed 3-2 four years ago and, with both teams possessing extremely talented but fallible batting line-ups and supremely deep bowling attacks that should thrive on English pitches, an enthralling series producing the same result would be no surprise.
Also read – Ashes Winners List