As both sides finalise their preparations for the first Ashes test match on the 23rd November at the Gabba in Brisbane, it is the Australian hosts who head into the series as firm favourites.
Although going into the series as victors, it is the English side that have been the subject of largely negative media and public attention. Fuelled by the ongoing Ben Stokes debacle, where the all-rounder was caught on CCTV punching another man outside a nightclub, the situation remains unresolved as to whether one of England’s best players will travel to Australia. Currently, the ECB have stated that Stokes will not be travelling with the team “at this stage”.
Australia’s Vice Captain David Warner has also faced backlash from the media for likening the upcoming Ashes series to “war”. The comments drew heavy criticism from former England players including Geoffrey Boycott, Michael Vaughan, and Marcus Trescothick who dismissed the comments as “pathetic”. Warner, who had recently earned himself the nickname of “The Reverend” for his good behaviour, subsequently apologised for the comments.
On the field, England’s longstanding batting woes have yet to be rectified. Since the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012, Alastair Cook has opened with eleven different partners. James Vince and Gary Ballance are both vying for the coveted number 3 position, but after a summer of low to mid-level scoring and persistent injuries, there is still no obvious choice. It will be left to the experienced Joe Root and Alastair Cook to bring stability to a fragile batting line-up.
There are chinks in the Australian armour too, albeit few and far between. For one, Australia’s first-choice wicket-keeper Matthew Wade has been short of runs this summer, which has opened the position up to the likes of Peter Nevill and Tim Paine. In addition, fitness issues have plagued Australia’s seam attack; Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood are both recovering from injury, and James Pattinson has been ruled out due to a long-standing back problem.
These problems notwithstanding, captain Steve Smith enters the series in fine form averaging 51 this year, but the current stand-out player in the side is off-spinner Nathan Lyon. Lyon is coming off the back of a record-breaking tour in India, where the bowler produced his greatest ever figures of 8-50 in Bangalore. Since 2015, Lyon has an impressive strike rate of 55.3, lower than the career strike rate of his compatriot Shane Warne (57.4). Lyon’s track record in Australia is already strong, and if the crafty off-spinner can bring this level of form into the series, the hosts will be a very difficult team to beat.
Collectively, the calibre of each squad is perhaps not as high as in previous years, but rest assured that it will still be a blistering contest. For English fans preparing their schedule for a nocturnal Winter, coverage starts at 00:00 (GMT) on 23rd November.