Talk of England regaining the Ashes felt far-fetched a few weeks ago. Poised to take on New Zealand in this summer’s warm-up series, they’d recently returned from a disastrous World Cup and an underwhelming trip to the Caribbean.
Results had cost Peter Moores his job and the appointment of his successor, Trevor Bayliss, drew a muted response.
Yet a number of stirring performances against the Kiwis renewed hope and prompted some to believe they will challenge Australia.
Bookies were sufficiently taken by the mood of optimism to trim England’s odds to 3/1 for a series victory for a time.
But they have now drifted back to 4/1 in some places as the reality of what they’re up against has sunk in.
Australia are not far off being the perfect Test team. Their batting line-up bristles with quality, while their seam-attack has greater strength and depth than any other.
In Nathan Lyon they may not have replaced Shane Warne, and probably never will. But he is a solid spinner nevertheless.
England have top performers among the ranks too. Some are hungry to make their mark at the beginning of their careers; others should have one last heroic Ashes campaign in them.
That the former played with such freedom in the one day series against New Zealand was refreshing after the turgid World Cup displays.
And there is genuine hope that their batsmen will put enough runs on the board to give the bowlers a decent chance of taking 20 wickets.
But here’s the ‘but’: in Alastair Cook they have the lesser of the two captains.
As a player, the Aussies have worked him out. As a skipper, he seems to have worked very little out, least of all how to get the most out of his men.
Sadly, he’s everything Eoin Morgan is not. I suspect this will be his last Test series as a captain, as a result, and I’d expect Joe Root to take over this winter.
This is a big series for Root. It is time he stepped up to the plate and justified his position as 11/4 favourite to be top England batsman.
Whether he can be top series batsman is another matter. In Steve Smith Australia have the number one exponent of his art; a player in red hot form.
It has been a remarkable rise for a man who began his Test career at number nine and was expected to contribute more with the ball than the bat. He was the chief architect of his team’s 2-0 success against the West Indies, smashing 283 runs at an average of 141, and will likely be so again in England.
That’s because he can now play on any surface, dropping anchor when required and attacking to great effect when circumstances allow.
For that reason I’ll be taking advantage of Betway’s 4/1 about him being top series runscorer and may yet be tempted by the 8/1 offered on him being Player of the Series.
Smith has yet to make a double century, falling agonisingly short on 199 at Sabina Park last month when Jerome Taylor trapped him on the crease.
I’m willing to take the chance neither he nor anyone else will bag one during the five matches and the 5/4 on offer looks a fair price.
For all that he averages just over 52 in Test cricket at the moment, I’m also tempted to sell Gary Ballance’s runs at 330 with Sporting Index.
Something tells me this isn’t going to be his series after failing to hit higher than 29 in four innings against New Zealand.
What it could be however, is a bumper summer for sixes. The culture of the game has changed so much in recent times that 43-45 looks on the low side to me.
If that’s the only thing that rains down over the next few weeks we’re in for a treat. Sadly for England fans, I think the visitors will just be too good.
- Steve Smith top series runscorer at 4/1 with Betway
- Sell Gary Ballance runs at 330 with Sporting Index
- Buy series sixes at 45 with Sporting Index