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One of the most eye-catching events in the cricketing calendar commences this week as Australia and England begin another chapter of their historic rivalry in the 70th Ashes series. Kicking off in Brisbane this Wednesday evening, England look to defend the prestigious urn. However, with the series held in Australia, the host go into the Ashes as slight favourites.

THE AUSTRALIAN SQUAD:

Australia (1st and 2nd Tests):

Steven Smith (c), David Warner, Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Peter Handscomb, Shaun Marsh, Tim Paine, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood, Jackson Bird, Chadd Sayers

Australia have sprung some surprises with their squad selection, notably axing wicketkeeper Matthew Wade and replacing him with Tim Paine. Peter Neville was also overlooked as the first-choice keeper which is surprising because many tipped him to be the main gloveman going into the Ashes. However, Tim Paine is no mug and is an aggressive batsman down the order. He will certainly serve his country well, but personally I feel that Neville is tidier behind the stumps and the Aussies should have gone with him.

Australia will rely on Warner and Smith to score the big runs. They are world-class batsmen and the experience of seven Ashes series between them will be invaluable for the host nation. Warner will most likely be partnered with Cameron Bancroft who looks set to replace the out of form Matt Renshaw. The Australian selectors picked on form players for the series and unfortunately Renshaw has been struggling for runs in domestic cricket.

In addition, the Aussies will look to Usman Khawaja, who has an impressive record in Australia. He scores runs quickly and looks to counter attack at number three which can put the opposition on the backfoot. With Smith at four, Peter Handscomb and Shaun Marsh should make up the middle order at five and six respectively. Handscomb’s test career may be in its infancy, but he is already averaging over fifty runs across ten matches. Having had a positive start to his career, this Ashes series is the perfect platform for him to cement a place in the middle order and make a name for himself. On the other hand, the selection of Shaun Marsh was slightly peculiar. He has been in and out of the side and, personally, I do not think he has been consistent in his performances to warrant the number six spot, but it looks like that position will be his come Brisbane. If Mitchell Marsh was fit and able to bowl, I’m sure he’d have gotten the nod.

The bowling unit looks very strong and although Australia will miss James Pattinson, the pace of Starc, the control of Hazelwood, and the power of Cummins are a lethal attack which are incredibly well-suited to Australian conditions. Nathan Lyon will also be influential as the bounce of the Aussie pitches will help his craft as the prime spinner.

KEY PLAYERS:

Mitchell Starc

It was left arm pace that destroyed England four years ago and although Mitchell Starc isn’t Mitchell Johnson, he has the potential to be just as lethal. Starc has the ability to consistently bowl at 90mph and is notoriously known for blowing away the tail. It was exactly this approach that Johnson used last time around and Australia could use Starc in that role. Short and sharp bursts from Starc could be what Smith uses him for, so England need to prepare to be roughed up.

Steve Smith

The captain is always a key player in every game they play but when it comes to an Ashes series, the captain needs to score runs and set the example for the rest of their team. I don’t think Smith will be feeling the pressure, but he will want to set the tone. If Smith is off form and is struggling to score runs, Australia will be feeling the heat.

Nathan Lyon

Lyon is probably one of the most overlooked players in the side, but his role is vital to Australia. Lyon goes about his business quietly by holding an end up so that the seamers can rotate and do their job from the other end. The bounce that the pitches offer really aids the over-spin that he bowls with.

THE ENGLISH SQUAD:

Alastair Cook, Mark Stoneman, Joe Root (c), Dawid Malan, Gary Ballance, James Vince, Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow, Mason Crane, Ben Foakes, Chris Woakes, Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Jake Ball, Craig Overton, Tom Curran

England’s squad could and should be looking all that bit stronger had Ben Stokes not gone out that one night in Bristol, but nevertheless it is still a competitive squad. The experience within the team is not quite there compared to previous years, but talent and potential certainly is.

At the top of the order, Mark Stoneman will partner with Cook and he has certainly capitalised in the warm-up matches scoring two fifties and a century already. James Vince and Dawid Malan, although inexperienced batsmen, have also scored big runs in the warm-up games. Malan managed to get 109 in the final warm-up. It helps that the three “question marks” in the England batting line-up have built up confidence ahead of what is going to be a gladiatorial battle in Brisbane.

England will rely on Cook and Root to deliver runs like they have done in the past. Root has scored runs everywhere he’s played but has never hit a century in Australia, yet. As England’s skipper and the best batsman, it’s time for him to lead from the front in the toughest of times. However, England’s lower order is packed full of incredible talent with Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali. Both have had a great summer and will enter the series in form and with confident. They have a license to play a bit freely down the order and Moeen, in particular, will take full advantage of it. Chris Woakes is at number eight and is a fantastic assest for the visitors too.

The bowling attack misses a bit of pace and it is a shame Mark Wood couldn’t perform at his best in the summer to warrant a position in the test team. Anderson, Broad, and Woakes, England’s seamers, are a bit similar in gameplay, but this combination won back in 2010-11. The difference previously was that the bowlers executed their different roles perfectly and the same principles will have to apply this time too. With the absence of Stokes, I think England will play an extra bowler and it looks as though Jake Ball will take the final spot in the team as Steve Finn has gone home, but I would be tempted to try Craig Overton as bit of an X factor.

KEY PLAYERS:

Joe Root

What is different about the visiting captain is that the Australians will target him more than the other players. Root will look to lead by example and do all the things Smith will do. However, Root is the opposing captain and is new to captaincy, so the pressure will be on him to deliver. Since his debut in 2012, he has never looked out of form and has always risen to the challenge. I expect this to be no different for Root.

Moeen Ali

With no Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali becomes the main allrounder and it is likely that he will bat at seven. He comes into the series in form after a tremendous summer with bat and ball. It is clear he knows his role in the team and his skillset is developing with every ball he bowls. However, his spin bowling credentials will be tested to the max during the series. Australia will come at him hard and it will be very interesting to see how he copes.

Stuart Broad

Broad was one of two players who played to their potential last time in Australia (the other being Stokes). He seems to love the big occasion and normally delivers during the Ashes. No doubt he will receive a lot of stick for his antics of not walking in 2013, but he seems to thrive when the crowd and the Australian media are on his back. England will be hoping he gets into one of his lethal spells to take the game away from the hosts.

KEY BATTLES:

Mitchell Starc v Alistair Cook

Starc’s first aim in this series will be to knock over Cook with the first ball of every England innings. Australia did get on top of Cook last time in 2013-14 because he was the captain, but this time, they will still target him because of his importance to the English side. The Aussie players will spend a bit more time discussing their plans for Cook, given his excellent performance, and it will be up to Starc to set the tone for the hosting team. If Cook can battle through the opening spell, he will be in prime position to cash in with a big hundred.

James Anderson v David Warner

Warner is probably the most dangerous player in the Australian line up because of how he scores the runs. He could take the game away from the opposition in a session and it will be very intriguing to see how the bowlers, especially Anderson, bowl to him at the start of the innings. Anderson has gotten Warner out more times than any other pace bowler in the world, so it will be fascinating to the two face-off once again. Warner will look to attack Anderson and his strength might just be his weakness.

Joe Root v Steve Smith

The battle of the captains is always something to look at during the Ashes. Bagging the opposing skipper cheaply is considered the biggest wicket and it will be captivating to see how the field arrangement, bowling plans, and the bowlers reflect the value of the opposing captain’s wicket. Whoever can keep increasing their confidence, remain calm and think methodically will most likely come out on top. Will the inexperience of Root actually be beneficial, or will the tactical knowledge of being at home be the key to success for Smith?

WHERE THE SERIES WILL BE WON:

Score Big Runs

To win an Ashes series in Australia, teams need to score big runs. In 2010/11, England scored 517-1 at Brisbane, 620-5d in Adelaide, 513 in Melbourne, and 644 in Sydney. In Perth, they didn’t manage to score above 200 which is why they lost. Runs are so important in Australia. First innings runs are critical because they give the bowlers and the captain more time to attack the opposition. Teams need to aim for over 450 rather than 350 because in Australia those extra 100 runs could mean everything. It allows bowlers to just bowl the ball and take wickets rather than worrying about other things.

Take Your Chances

Catching the ball will go a long way to winning the series. England’s catching was dreadful in 2013/14 and quite brilliant in 2015. Of course, there will be catches dropped during the five test matches, but whichever side can minimise these will come out on top. However, it is not just about catches, hitting the stumps for run out chances and being switched on in the field will put the opposition under pressure. It’s all good doing it for the first session in Brisbane, but the high intensity needs to remain throughout the six weeks.

Behave in the Media

The media plays such a significant role in the Ashes these days, particularly in Australia given its brutality. They will be the first to criticise their team when they have messed up, but when Australia are winning it can be very heated in the media. If players are going into press conferences criticising the opposition, being cagey, or dodging questions, it shows a lack of focus and indicates that there is perhaps a deeper issue behind closed doors. If players can keep their head within the media, it will certainly ease some of the pressure that’s on the cricketers.

It’s a tight series to call and I am not too sure what cricket we will see during the series, but I am certain that no test will end in a draw and I am expecting five results unless a freak storm hits the country.