Tomorrow England start their Ashes campaign against the Aussies with the first of three ODIs at Taunton, the second is at Bristol on Thursday, and the third at Worcester on Sunday. As well as being part of the Ashes Series the games are also the three matches in the ICC Women's Championship, the qualifying tournament for the World Cup in 2017. Australia are currently top of the table, while England languish in sixth place. These are three very important matches for England.
I had intended to write this preview last week, but I thought I would wait for yesterday's EWA v Australia warm-up game (scorecard here), so that I could get a sight of the Aussies playing on English soil. Had I written it last week I would have been pretty pessimistic about England's chances of winning any of the three games in this mini-series. Australia are the current 50 over World Champions and England come into this series after a rather dismal 2-1 ICCWC defeat in New Zealand. But I have to say that, having watched Australia yesterday and having seen how they have warmed-up against men's teams both in Australia and here, I am now less pessimistic.
The Aussies are out of season and playing on English pitches and in English conditions. I understand their desire to warm-up against strong opposition, but their bowlers were flayed round the park by the two men's teams they have played and their batsmen have struggled. I am not sure that is the preparation they needed, and it showed yesterday against the England Academy. True they won that game, but only by 15 runs and they failed to put more than 250 runs on the board on a great batting track and with a lightning outfield. With the exception of Ellyse Perry (93*) their batting looked tentative.
As for their bowling it looked toothless. Perry is a shadow of the bowler she once was and Holly Ferling looked over-coached, medium-paced and inaccurate. Rene Farrell bowls tidily enough and looks hard to get away, and England will have to avoid getting bogged down by her as the Academy girls did yesterday. They also struggled with left-arm spinner Jess Jonassen, who is naggingly accurate even if she is not a big spinner of the ball. Leggie Kristen Beams looks set to play in the ODIs, and the Aussies have talked her up, but if the England girls can use their feet to her and not allow her to settle she will bowl plenty of scoring deliveries and the tracks are unlikely to offer her much spin.
England will have no better chance of getting two points on both the Ashes and ICCWC scoreboards than in the first ODI tomorrow. The question is whether they are in a good enough place to take that chance? It is a big series for the likes of Heather Knight, Nat Sciver, Lauren Winfield and possibly Georgia Elwiss, who all show so much promise with the bat, but all too infrequently. England cannot keep relying on Charlotte Edwards and Sarah Taylor to get all their runs. I think Knight could be a key player. Anya Shrubsole and Katherine Brunt will lead the bowling attack, but they need to avoid bowling too short to the Aussies. They are good off the back foot, and neither bowler now have the consistent pace they used to have. They will need to keep a lid on the Aussies for the first ten overs and then it seems likely that spinners Knight, Rebecca Grundy and possibly Laura Marsh, will try and stifle the Aussies in the middle overs. Knight's honeymoon period as a spinner is coming to an end and I think the Aussies may look to get after her early. If she can hold her nerve that could work for England. It will be an intriguing battle.
The other imponderable for England appears to be Jenny Gunn. Will she play or will she be replaced by Laura Marsh or Georgia Elwiss? If she does play where will she bat? She drifted down to 10 in New Zealand. And where is her bowling at the moment? She has been notoriously stingey in the past and good at taking wickets, but appears to have lost that knack of bowling darts at the batsmen's toes. At her best she could be a vital cog in the well-oiled England machine. Hopefully someone will have got the physios equivalent of WD40 out on her.
These and many other questions will be answered over the next few days. I am going to stick my neck out and say that I think England will win the first ODI, and that one team will win the mini-series 2-1, but I'm not sure which team that will be. It is going to be a rollercoaster ride. Please make sure you are safely strapped in, remain seated at all times and keep your hands down!