The Ashes: Australia and England leap into chasm of unknowns

While the Ashes remains at the forefront of competitive cricketing excellence, the upcoming series has more question marks hanging over it than any in a long, long while.

England's batsmen? Australia's batsmen? Australia's wicketkeeper? Will or won't Ben Stokes play?

One opener and the captain shape as being the only constants that fans from either side can cling on to - David Warner and Steve Smith for Australia, Alastair Cook and Joe Root for England.

Those Australian bowlers so well-versed in home conditions? Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc certainly have the skills but all three have been injury-prone in the past and the burdens of a four-man attack puts any or all of them at risk of breaking down.

England's seam bowlers are on one hand a mish-mash and the other almost entirely homogenous.

Right-arm, mid-80s mph pace, able to extract movement from a green deck. All that seems to be different is the experience, but even then, that does not exactly bring enormous positives for James Anderson and Stuart Broad.

Anderson has eyes on overtaking Glenn McGrath as Test cricket's most lethal quick bowler, but his record in Australia suggests he might not make up too much ground in the coming months.

Forty-three wickets at 38.44 does not quite tell the full story - 24 of them came as Anderson was the pick of the bowlers in 2010-11 - and the Lancastrian was not able to pull himself above the whitewash malaises either side of that brilliant triumph.

Broad was the best of a rancid bunch four years ago and his extra height is generally viewed as a tool for success on Australia's hard decks.

And then there's the batsmen.

Usman Khawaja is generally supreme in Australia, but Cameron Bancroft's selection may put the Queenslander under pressure if Warner's new opening partner does not hit the ground running.

More runs (442) at a better average (110.50) than anyone in the first three rounds of the Sheffield Shield suggest Bancroft is in good nick, and earned him the spot over Matt Renshaw, but an inconsistent spell in the County Championship earlier in the year may give England's attack confidence.

Shaun Marsh being recalled for a ninth time to the Test side tells its own story and the lengthy list of now-retired players who have scored first-class hundreds more recently than Tim Paine, who nearly quit a year ago, is similarly instructive.

Australia's recent squad announcement has deflected attention away from the previously maligned tourists.

Mark Stoneman - England's top-scorer in their warm-up games - and Dawid Malan are expected to retain their places in the line-up after solid if unspectacular efforts in the home summer. Their incumbency rather than influence appears to be key.

James Vince's return to the Test arena, under the most magnifying of microscopes, is altogether more baffling.

The principle issue in Vince's game on his last Test run was a propensity to get caught behind the wicket - which is how batsmen have chiefly fallen in Australia since time immemorial - and a lower County Championship average in 2017 than England's coach Paul Collingwood raises concerns.

Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali have proven themselves capable of salvaging some of the more desperate scenarios England have plunged into recently, but they are of course shouldering a lot of the batting burden left by Stokes' absence.

Reports have suggested that Stokes could return to the side for the third Test in Perth, scene of his first burst onto the Test scene with a feisty 120 on a WACA pitch that resembled more a geological anomaly than a playing surface.

Until he does join the party or the series ends, whichever is sooner, the all-rounder is sure to become the most discussed, most analysed player of the series. If he does take to the field it will only go up a notch.

The numerous unknowns have almost given this series an edge of farce in its build-up, but could well give way to truly thrilling Test cricket, and with neither side sure of themselves, victory could go down to the wire.

Or it could be 5-0 Australia again. We just don't know...

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