In spite of the fact that Australia were dealt a big blow just days before the Ashes, with the sudden retirement of Ryan Harris, the visitors would still head into the opening Test of Ashes 2015 at Cardiff as favourites. After all, they are the world champions, and are also the defending champions in the Ashes, having thrashed the Englishmen 5-0 at home the last time the two teams met. On the other hand, England would like to believe that they too are in with a serious chance of winning. It would be pertinent to remember that England have gotten the better of the Aussies at home of late. They won the last series in England 3-0.
Australia have a very strong batting line up, on which they would depend as they look to put up big scores. David Warner will be key at the top of the order. He is known for his aggressive batting and, if he gets going, he has the affinity to carry on, and make big scores. The rate at which he scores also makes it easier for the others. Chris Rogers would be having his swansong, but he will be under pressure, with Shaun Marsh close on his heels. The middle order is an extremely strong one, with Steven Smith, who will be a dangerman as well, skipper Michael Clarke and Adam Voges handling the responsibility. Lower down the order, there is Brad Haddin as well.
There will be a close fight for the all-rounder's slot at Cardiff. Under usual circumstances, Shane Watson would have walked in easily. However, with Mitchell Marsh performing well in the practice games, and Watson not the force he once was, you never know. The loss of Ryan Harris is a massive setback for Australia. But, the fact is that they have gotten used to playing with 'Rhino' since he has been out injured so often. In Mitchell Johnson, they have someone who tormented the Englishmen the last time these two sides met. Also, since that time, Mitchell Starc has proceeded to be a class bowler. Nathan Lyon, the team's main spinner, will have a task to perform too.
England, on the other hand, will have their work cut out. They may have renewed their one-day form with a spectacular showing against New Zealand, but the Ashes against Australia will be a much tougher proposition. Having said that, England do have the players who can give the Aussies a close run. The series will be extremely important for Ben Stokes. The all-rounder, after a stop-start career, came into his own in the short series against the Kiwis. But, he faces a bigger test against the Aussies. He will need to do the kind of job Andrew Flintoff performed so brilliantly a decade back.
Among the batsmen, Joe Root would be expected to come up with the big knocks, and anchor the innings. He has, by far, been England's best batsman over the last couple of years, and has proved his worth in different conditions. It would be interesting to see how the openers perform. Alastair Cook has played himself back into form, but Adam Lyth is inexperienced. The series will also be crucial for Gary Ballance, who is searching for form. As always, England will depend on James Anderson and Stuart Broad to deliver the goods with the ball. Steven Finn also gets a chance to improve his Test record. In the spin department, they may have to choose between Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid.
--By A Cricket Analyst