Joe Root is going to struggle, his England teammate Ben Stokes will dominate, and rival skipper Tim Paine will bounce back to form.
These are three of my predictions for the Ashes, which kicks off tomorrow.
Ben Stokes will be England’s best player
The drunken brawl scandal of September 2017 threatened to derail Stokes’ impressive career. He missed five months of international cricket and, after being in career-best form prior to that incident, returned a shadow of his former self.
In 13 Tests since his comeback, Stokes has averaged just 29 with the bat, with a highest score of 79.
Yet in that same period, Stokes has been sensational with the ball, taking 32 wickets at 25 – including several pivotal spells.
Last English summer, with India chasing just 194 to win in the first Test, Stokes swung the match with 4-40, including the massive wicket of Virat Kohli.
Later that year in Sri Lanka, Stokes took 4-55 in a narrow win in the third Test.
Like Andrew Flintoff before him, Stokes has a habit of taking wickets in clumps, of shaping matches in a single spell.
First and foremost, of course, he needs to make runs, likely from number five or six. Based on his efforts in the World Cup – I’ve never seen him bat better in that format – Stokes also looks set for a big series with the blade. His ability to soak up pressure while batting in that tournament was extraordinary.
Despite having made his name as a hitter in ODIs, Stokes was calm in temperament and compact in technique throughout the World Cup. Granted, it’s a different format, but he just looked in the zone.
If Stokes carries that form into this Ashes, it is hard not to see him causing headaches for Australia in the middle order.
Combined with his incisive swing bowling, Stokes is set to be England’s MVP.
Tim Paine will bounce back
In late 2017, Tim Paine went from a moderately busy state cricketer contemplating retirement to traipsing all over the world as the ODI and Test captain of an Australian side decimated by the ball-tampering scandal.
After years in cruise mode, he suddenly had to hit top gear.
Initially he handled this stress well. Across nine Tests against England and South Africa, he kept neatly and excelled with the bat, averaging 45. But the cricket just kept on coming, with a limited-overs tour of England, followed by a tour of the UAE and then a packed home summer with six Tests against India and Sri Lanka.
By the end of that home season, Paine looked knackered. While his glovework remained fine, his batting returns dwindled.
Since then, however, Paine has had six months to recuperate, both physically and mentally. The Tasmanian knows that this series is likely to be the biggest moment of his career and Paine has shown he loves a challenge.
A fresh Paine with a point to prove is a Paine I’d back to flourish.
Joe Root will have an underwhelming series
While undoubtedly one of the world’s premier Test batsmen, English captain Joe Root has a chequered Ashes record.
He was excellent in 2015, arguably the key difference between the two teams. In the 2013 series, he scored 53 per cent of his runs in just one innings, albeit a match-winning knock, and averaged 20 across his other nine innings.
Next up, in 2013-14, he floundered against Mitchell Johnson and co. averaging 27. Then in 2017-18 he was flattered by an average of 47.
Just like Steve Smith and David Warner in 2015, who had nice-looking stats but didn’t make runs when it mattered most, Root was AWOL at the key moments in the last Ashes.
That series was decided in the first innings of the first three Tests, when Root needed to stand up. Instead he failed all three times, making 15, 9 and 20.
His five 50s in that series all came either in dead rubbers, or in second innings once Australia had already run away with the result.
Captaincy has weighed heavily on Root. Without the Test captaincy he averaged 53 and as skipper that number has fallen to 42. He is yet to prove he can produce his best as a batsman while leading his country, unlike fellow stars Steve Smith, Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli, who average 70, 64 and 63 as captain, respectively.
The other major hurdle facing Root in this series is his predicted move to first drop. With England boasting an extremely vulnerable opening combination, Root will regularly have to face the new ball against Australia’s elite and varied pace attack. On often-helpful English pitches, that is a serious task.
I’m not predicting Root will have a shocking Ashes – he is, after all, a fine Test cricketer – I just don’t expect him to pile up runs.
He will end up averaging in the mid-30s.