It may still be many months away, but an intriguing end-of-year Ashes battle is already beginning to take shape.
Cricketing rivals Australia and England will end 2021 going head-to-head for the famous urn once more.
While there is plenty of cricket yet to be played before then, that won’t stop either team from having one eye firmly on the historic contest.
Hosts Australia are looking for a third-successive Ashes series victory, while England will need to land their first win Down Under since 2010-11 if they want to return with the urn.
Many Aussie bookies have already featured the favourites. For instance, if we check some popular bet365 Australia offers, we’ll find competitive odds with the hosts priced at 8/15, while England can be backed at 11/4. The draw is available at 11/2.
With the last Ashes series ending in a draw, we look at some of the crucial contests that could shape how the next series plays out.
David Warner vs Stuart Broad
One of the biggest one-sided battles that are likely to be revisited in the 2021-21 Ashes is the match-up between England bowler Stuart Broad and Aussie opener David Warner.
Warner has been superb for his country across all formats but struggled in England in 2019, especially when facing some lethal bowling from brilliant Broad.
England’s second-highest all-time wicket-taker dismissed Warner a whopping seven times out of his 10 dismissals that tour.
He was sent packing by Broad at least once in every single Test match that year. Warner will want to respond and will back himself to level matters when he gets Broad in Australian conditions.
Number one Test side New Zealand have shown with recent red-ball trips to Australia that home dominance doesn’t necessarily translate into superiority on the road.
Whichever way the rematch goes it is likely to have a big say in where the urn ends up after five gruelling Tests matches.
Steve Smith vs Jack Leach
Make no mistake; if Warner lost his battle in England during the last Ashes campaign, Steve Smith certainly didn’t lose his.
His batting brilliance was matched only by his patience as he methodically ground down the home side’s attack day after day.
England had no answer to his expert timing and imposing mental stamina. Only the concussion he suffered in the second Test prevented him from dishing out more destruction than the 774 runs he piled on in just four matches.
Much has been made of Smith’s weakness against left-arm spin, and it would be no surprise to see that tested more by the England camp.
Jack Leach didn’t have much joy in 2019 – dismissing Smith just once – but he could well be given more opportunities on Australian pitches, including the spin-friendly SCG.
Smith’s stats don’t show too many weaknesses, but a slight vulnerability to left-armers does at least offer the tourists a glimmer of hope.
England seemed reluctant to hand Leach the ball early in Smith’s innings last time around but may be tempted to alter that thinking Down Under.
One bowler that had some results was Chris Woakes. The right-handed Warwickshire seamer accounted for Smith on three out of seven occasions, but he could well miss out should England go for an all-out pace.
Either way, England can find an answer to the Steve Smith problem that looks vital to their chances.
Joe Root vs Pat Cummins
If Steve Smith is Australia’s batting talisman, then skipper Joe Root is England’s main man. The 30-year-old has started 2021 in breath-taking fashion in both Sri Lanka and India. He will be keen to do the same in Australia come the end of the year.
His settled role at number four offers England’s openers an insurance policy while giving him plenty of opportunities to build dangerous partnerships with the likes of Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler.
He may not be the thorn in Australia’s side that Smith is to England, but he is undoubtedly the man the home side will love seeing the back-off.
The man charged with getting that job done is likely to be star bowler Pat Cummins. The pace ace took the most wickets of any bowler in 2019 as he bagged 29 in five matches.
While he accounted for Root on just three occasions in England, his record against him in Australia makes this head-to-head so crucial.
In the 2017-18 Ashes, Cummins sent Root packing in the first-innings in four out of the five Tests. However, with Root playing some of his career’s best cricket, mastering Cummins in Australia is certainly within his capabilities.
So, given we may well be heading a close Ashes battle this time around, it is those compelling head-to-head encounters that could prove the difference.
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