It is notoriously difficult to predict the outcome of a cricket series, especially when two sides are pretty evenly matched as these two are. Just look at the journalistic carnage following the men's Ashes series! But we all love to speculate and pontificate, so with England due to start yet another Ashes campaign with the Test Match on Friday I will give you my thoughts. Do with them what you will!
The series will once again follow the same multi-game, multi-format formula, with one Test Match worth 6 points to the winner (2 each if it is a draw); three ODIs (worth 2 points each); and three T20s (also worth 2 points each). With the Test Match being the first game played, winning that game and going 6-0 up, would give either side a huge boost - hence not losing becomes the prime objective and a draw is therefore the most likely outcome. Add to this that the Test is being played at the WACA, which looks a pretty good batting wicket with little in it for the spinners and a draw looks favourite. The series will then come down to the shorter formats to decide the series, with England only needing to draw to retain the Ashes. Effectively the Aussies would need to win four of the six games.
On paper England have taken their strongest squad out to Australia with the notable absence of Holly Colvin, who is currently taking a break from cricket, and Laura Marsh, who remains injured. In the longer formats Heather Knight and Charlotte Edwards will open the batting. Edwards is a class act and has been there and done that many times and can be relied on to score runs. In fact in the past England have relied on her too much. But in Knight they have finally found an opening partner who is just as classy. She had a great summer in domestic cricket and then in the England team, including her memorable innings in the Wormsley Test. Injured in the final T20 she has fought her way back to fitness and has just smashed an unbeaten 123 on the first day of the warm-up game. Good signs for England. At three England have Sarah Taylor. Her front foot driving will be suited by the Aussie wickets, but she can expect plenty of short stuff from Perry, Ferling and Farrell, especially at the WACA. I cannot think of anyone else I would prefer to see coming in at the fall of the first wicket, plus she is great to watch. At four I would expect to see Lydia Greenway. The Aussies will have learned their lessons from the series in England and if they cut off her sweep and reverse sweep options she will need to adapt.
The England middle order looks a bit of a moveable feast with Arran Brindle, Natalie Sciver, Jenny Gunn and Georgia Elwiss all fighting for two or three spots. Brindle and Gunn are the old guard and Sciver and Elwiss the young bucks. Sciver seems a certain pick and Gunn may be picked more as a bowling option than a batting option depending on the format. I'd like to see Elwiss given a go, but she may get limited opportunities. She is a good positive bat and I can see her and Sciver forming a nice partnership in England's longterm.
The spin options are down to just Dani Hazell and Danni Wyatt. I have to admit I think we are a bit thin here. Neither pose a massive spinning threat, but England will hope they can keep a lid on the Aussie batsmen. It would not surprise me to see the Aussies really targeting both players to try and shake their confidence early in the tour. The one advantage both girls have is the presence of Sarah Taylor behind the stumps, which helps keeps the batsmen on their toes. This could be a crucial battleground.
In the fast bowling department Katherine Brunt and Anya Shrubsole are must-plays if fit, and that is a big if. Shrubsole is not in the warm-up game and Brunt admits she is never really 100% fit, but both are gutsy players and if they can play they will. As back-ups there are Gunn, Sciver and Elwiss, plus Kate Cross. I think all of them will play and will get chucked the ball at some stage during the series. Tash Farrant will replace Cross for the T20s and may get a game or two depending on the state of the series.
As for the Aussies they need to find an opening partner for Meg Lanning, Australia's new vice captain. At 21 she already has heaps of experience behind her and seems to like the longer format. It would not surprise me to see her start the series with a classy hundred in the Test. Possible partners in the Aussie squad are Rachael Haynes, Elyse Villani or Nicole Bolton. Haynes has the experience but has not been in great form, whereas both Villani and Bolton have been in great form. I'd give the job to the left-handed Bolton, but it may depend how each of them go in the current warm-up game - a big knock could secure a place. If Villani does not open she could also fit in quite nicely at four or five.
Test specialist Sarah Elliott will almost certainly hold down the number three spot in the Test, but will not feature in the one-day stuff. Jess Cameron will bat at four in the Test and three in the one day games. She likes to hit the ball hard to the leg-side and rarely scores slowly. She has not been in great form so far this season with a highest score of just 56*, but discount her at your peril. If England can get her early in the first couple of games then it will be a big test of her self-confidence.
The experienced pairing of Jodie Fields and Alex Blackwell are likely to be next to the crease. Fields had a pretty poor trip to England last summer and has had injuries at the start of the domestic season. She has had one big knock this summer (150), but otherwise has been struggling a bit. Should the Aussies get behind in the series she will be under the same pressure England's Alastair Cook has faced. England may need to go at her hard. Former captain and vice-captain Blackwell has found some decent form in the T20 format, but looks vulnerable in the longer stuff. Possible options are Villani or moving Haynes down the order. Australia also have Ellyse Perry who is proving to be more than capable with the bat, even if her bowling seems not to have come back to its best following her ankle surgery last year. The recalled Rene Farrell as well as being a viable opening bowling option, knows which end of a bat to hold and what to do with it too. Bowlers Erin Osborne and Sarah Coyte are also handy lower down the order. Generally the Aussies bat all the way down the order, so England will have to keep plugging away.
As for the Aussie pace bowling options I think Perry and Farrell will form the preferred opening partnership backed up by Coyte and Megan Schutt. Holly Ferling is still young and may end up carrying the drinks for much of the series, subject to injuries and bad form of those above her in the pecking order. The two spinners are Erin Osborne, who looks to be the first choice spinner, and Jess Jonassen, who is in the ODI squad only at the moment. Both have had good seasons to date and both may make the Test and ODI teams.
So who is going to win what? I think the Test will be a draw, with a marginal preference for England if Brunt and Shrubsole can play the whole match. In the ODIs I think its pretty much even-stevens, with either team likely to win the mini-series 2-1. Despite the Aussies poor show in the T20s in England I think they will start as marginal favourites for all the T20 matches, but by that stage the pressure may well be on one team or the other to do something spectacular. My forecast, if you really want to push me, is for a tied series at 8-8, but who knows in cricket? It would certainly be great for the women's game.
BTW the Test is apparently being streamed live on the Cricket Australia website at www.cricket.com.au and there will be full radio coverage from TMS and ABC. Lovely jubbly!!