LONDON (Reuters) - England are still basking in the glow of an epic World Cup triumph but if anything can throw cold water over their memorable summer it would be a first home Ashes series loss to Australia for 18 years.
Battle commences at Edgbaston on Thursday and the last time Australia won there was the opening match of the 2001 series which they ended up dominating 4-1.
Since then, apart from England’s series win Down Under in 2010-11, home advantage has proved overwhelming.
Australia, holders of the urn after a 4-0 home win, will take heart from their previous visit to England in 2015 when they lost 3-2 in a series that could have gone either way.
England still rely heavily on record test-wicket taker James Anderson and his partner in crime Stuart Broad, although the searing pace of test debutant Jofra Archer, a revelation in the World Cup, and Olly Stone should lighten the load.
Anderson will be 37 when the first test starts but no Australian batsman will feel set at the crease against a player whose ability to make the Dukes ball sing is unrivalled.
“If it swings, England will win almost solely because of Jimmy. If he was in the Australia team, they would win the Ashes,” former England spinner Graeme Swann said.
Anderson will need to be at his best if England are to regain the Ashes as their batting gives genuine cause for alarm.
Last week’s test against Ireland was meant to calm the jitters. Instead England were bowled out for 85 in the first innings and lost seven wickets for 77 in the second.
A magical spell by Chris Woakes and Broad bowled Ireland out for 38 to seal victory but it could not disguise the fact that since Alastair Cook retired last year England have not come remotely close to finding a reliable top order.
England’s Australian coach Trevor Bayliss said “you don’t need to be Einstein” to work out where England’s problems are after that rollercoaster test at Lord’s.
They have been bowled out for fewer than 100 twice already this year and Australia’s pacemen, led by world number one Pat Cummins, taker of 23 wickets in the 2017 series, and featuring Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, James Pattinson, Peter Siddle and all rounder Mitchell Marsh, will be licking their lips.
“How would I feel if I was getting ready to play in this series, preparing myself to bowl at an England top three that is far from solid? Quietly confident,” said Australian bowling great Glenn McGrath this week.
Jason Roy, so destructive as a one-day batsman, will open the batting but is a rookie in international red-ball cricket. He made his test debut against Ireland, scoring 72 in the second innings after failing in the first.
Fellow opener Rory Burns made 12 in two goes against Ireland and averages 22 in tests while Joe Denly, set for the tricky number three slot, has played three tests.
England will be relying on the likes of skipper Joe Root, at four, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Sam Curran to eke out enough runs to keep the Australians at bay.
Australia have their own batting weaknesses and lost series to Pakistan and India in the wake of the infamous 2017 defeat in South Africa which led to bans for leading batsmen David Warner, Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft for their part in a ball-tampering scandal.
That trio, averaging 48, 61 and 30 in tests, are set to return to the test arena at Edgbaston, however, and will add class and experience to a batting lineup featuring Tasmania’s Matthew Wade and Queensland’s Marnus Labuschagne.
Ball is expected to dominate willow over the five-test series culminating in mid-September and draws do not appear likely. It will be entertaining but blink and you might miss it.
“This will be up there with the lowest-scoring Ashes series,” former England skipper Michael Vaughan said.
“You look at both bowling attacks, and their skill and discipline, and teams might struggle to reach 300.”
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty