Things looking up for England down under

AUSTRALIA v/s ENGLAND

THE ASHES SERIES
MIDNIGHT TONIGHT, SKY SPORTS 1

RITUAL humiliation. For so many years an England touring party in Australia suffered nothing else. The visit down under would be awaited with hope and expectation – hope of little and expectation of even less – as they were routinely outclassed by the rampant Aussies.

Almost a quarter of a century has passed uninterrupted without the Three Lions tasting Ashes success in Australia. They last boarded the flight home to Heathrow with the urn in 1987 and, since that historic achievement, have won just three of the subsequent 25 Tests in Oz. The most recent chapter in this sorry tale came when the class of 2006/7 were pathetically whitewashed.

Why, then, so much optimism in the England camp this time around? Australia are, after all, odds-on to win the series at 10/11 with Paddy Power. However, the sands are shifting in Australian cricket and, after back-to-back Ashes wins on home soil, this really does look like being England’s best chance of a series win in the Baggy Greens’ backyard.

In contrast to the hosts’ troublesome build-up, Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower’s preparations have been serene. Australia’s last three Test matches have ended in defeat, meaning their two most recent series ended with a draw to Pakistan and loss to India. Meanwhile, England haven’t lost a series in almost two years, during which time they’ve won five of six – the only one not ending in victory was a draw in South Africa.

That Australia picked an initial 17-man squad shows just how unsettled they have been by injuries and loss of form. Three Lions coach Flower knows his best team and his planning has been meticulous. Furthermore, England sit above Australia in the current ICC Test rankings and the Zimbabwean has instilled a winning mentality that has seen his troops perform strongly in all forms of the game.

England’s last five ODI series have been won and who can forget the World Twenty20 victory in West Indies where England beat Australia in the final by seven wickets?

For me there’s an anticipation reminiscent to that before the England rugby team embarked on their 2003 World Cup campaign.

Selling Australia’s series supremacy at 2 with Sporting Index looks a great option where the overall winner gets 10 points and a further five points for each Test won by. We can also keep the draw onside by backing England to retain the Ashes at 5/6 with Paddy Power and that looks more prudent than taking the 7/4 for England to win the series. For all the tourists’ positive omens and despite their relative travails of late, Australia have only lost one Test series at home in 18 years.

The fact that the make-up of both sides has changed significantly since England’s capitulation four years can only be good for the tourists. Of those returning, Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood will take confidence from the fact that they were their team’s stand-out players, and Strauss does not carry the burden of having captained that side. Ian Bell made a few decent knocks then and hit a fine 192 in Hobart last week. He looks far tougher mentally nowadays. Established at No6, free from injury and an option for higher up the order if Alastair Cook or KP are unable to put dodgy periods behind them, I’ll be buying his runs at 350 with Sporting Index.

Stuart Broad’s ever-improving ability with the bat points to a buy of his runs at 175. His average is creeping towards 30 and a high score of 169 against Pakistan is backed up by five Test fifties.

Fixed-odds punters might be tempted by Pietersen at 4/1 to be England’s top batsman. OK, this one could go either way, but no current England man has scored more Test runs in Australia and he looks as good a choice as any to topple Strauss, the 7/2 jolly. Jonathan Trott’s immense powers of concentration make him a runner too at 5/1 but if Pietersen overcomes his demons and fallibility against slow left-arm spin then he can top score comfortably.

In the bowling department, Graeme Swann looks a shoo-in to be England’s top wicket-taker at 5/4 with Paddy Power. The world’s best spinner takes wickets on any track and the 3/1 about him being overall series top bowler looks good value.

From an Aussie perspective it’s hard to overlook Ricky Ponting for top Australia batsman at 4/1 on Betdaq. Whatever his reputation as captain, he remains in a class of his own among this team and scores for fun on all five Ashes grounds. Mitchell Johnson will be his go-to man with the ball but he can also handle himself at the crease. Sporting Index set his series performance spread at a hefty 605 yet I’d still be tempted to buy at that price where runs, catches, wickets and stumpings count towards the total.

POINTERS...

Sell Australia supremacy with Sporting Index at 2
Back England to retain the Ashes at 5/6 with Paddy Power
Buy Ian Bell runs with Sporting Index at 350
Back Graeme Swann to be top bowler at 3/1

AUSTRALIA v/s ENGLAND

FIRST TEST
MIDNIGHT TONIGHT, SKY SPORTS 1

NOVEMBER 1988 was the last time Australia lost at the Gabba. Since then they’ve drawn five Tests and won the remaining 16, including all of the last six, three of which came by an innings.

Brisbane Cricket Ground, to give the old stadium its official name, is the traditional home to the opening Ashes fixture and it is no coincidence England’s previous victory here came during their last series win – back in 1986. Four years ago, England only managed 157 in their first innings after the Aussies had declared on 602/9.

That match will forever be remembered for Steve Harmison delivering the first ball so wide that Andrew Flintoff caught it in disbelief at second slip. Harmison’s horror set the tone so the Three Lions must make a good impression here.

The Gabba is a results pitch and usually one in Australia’s favour. However, if England are good enough to retain the Ashes, then they will need to re-write a number of records along the way. Considering the hosts’ current problems, they look worth laying for the first Test at around 5/4 on Betdaq.

Brisbane is generally a decent batting pitch and Ricky Ponting should be backed at 6/1 with Paddy Power to top score. He’s accumulated 1196 runs here at an average of 66 – more than any man in history. Furthermore, Ponting’s three Ashes appearances at the Gabba have seen him hit 403 runs at an average of 100.75.

Pointers...

Lay Australia to win the first Test at 5/4 on Betdaq
Ricky Ponting to be top batsman at 6/1 with Paddy Power