The Ashes: Assessing England and Australia ahead of the 2019 series
Right now the 2019 Cricket World Cup is now the focus for most international sides but England and Australia know this is also an Ashes year.
Plenty can change between now and the first Test at Edgbaston, which starts on August 1, as demonstrated in recent months.
Not too long ago, England were riding high after securing a series sweep in Sri Lanka, while Australia had lost a series at home for the first time against India.
Since then, however, Joe Root's side slipped up against West Indies and Australia returned to winning ways on home soil, crushing the Sri Lankans.
So, before the 50-over game takes centre stage, we grasped the chance to assess the state of the two rival nations.
Four wins from six Tests this winter! Thank you for all your support in Sri Lanka, the Caribbean and from around the world.— England Cricket (@englandcricket) February 13, 2019
Massive summer ahead! pic.twitter.com/piFtkNJ1iU
England began their busy winter without a clear idea over the identity of their top three in the order. Now, several months and six Tests later, they seem further away from finding a solution than when they left home.
Keaton Jennings did make a century on Sri Lankan soil, but his problems against seam bowling were exposed once again in the Caribbean. Rory Burns fared better in the 2-1 series defeat, yet is still far from certain of his place in the Test XI.
Joe Denly made his debut in Antigua, opening instead of the dropped Jennings, yet ended the West Indies series at number three and made 69 during the second innings in St Lucia.
It all leaves the top-order picture unclear. Candidates from outside the previous two touring parties know a stack of early runs in the County Championship will push them into contention That is easier said than done, though, considering the domestic schedule and pitches favouring seam early in the English summer.
At least the rest of the line-up is more settled. With Root locked in at four, England appear set to have Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow, who briefly went up to three before resuming duties behind the stumps, in the middle order. That quartet can power the team to competitive totals, provided they get better protection from those above them.
Much like their opponents, the batting order undoubtedly remains the biggest question mark for Australia, even though the returns of Steve Smith and David Warner from suspension will provide a huge boost.
The series against India and Sri Lanka did little to ease doubts over the top order, with the former's seamers dominating. Opener Marcus Harris was Australia's leading run-scorer against India with 258 at 36.85 but, for plenty of positive signs, his inability to convert starts into big scores hurt the team.
Joe Burns' big ton against Sri Lanka may be enough to get him a spot, while Travis Head has locked down his. Usman Khawaja scored what may have been a place-saving century in Canberra, having looked out of touch throughout the Australian summer.
The Australian Men's Cricket team celebrate the end of a successful Domain Test Series against Sri Lanka, winning 2-0 to claim the Warne–Muralitharan Trophypic.twitter.com/XJEMTmV06N— Cricket Australia (@CricketAus) February 4, 2019
Kurtis Patterson also reached three figures versus Sri Lanka and may grab the final spot in the top six, although the remainder of the Sheffield Shield season could be decisive.
Shaun Marsh has surely lost his Test place for a final time, but he has continually scored runs at domestic level - not that that has mattered for the Shield's leading run-scorer this season in Matthew Wade. Aaron Finch, meanwhile, endured a miserable campaign after being asked to open.
Even during the successful series over Sri Lanka, Australia found themselves in tough spots at 76-3, 28-3 and 37-3. But they have been playing without their two best batsmen in Warner and Smith, the latter's ability to steady an innings and make big scores a particular miss.
Their returns may not solve Australia's problems but will help, although English conditions will provide yet another huge test.
Let us start with Australia, who, barring injuries, appear far more settled in this area of their team.
Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood are sidelined with pectoral and back injuries respectively, though their places are safe. Neither reached any great heights during the Australian summer, but Starc did find form against Sri Lanka, grabbing a 10-wicket Test haul in Canberra.
The pace attack was led by Pat Cummins instead, who was impressive and deserved greater rewards against India. Those duly arrived along with Sri Lanka as he took 14 wickets at 7.78. His 28 wickets were the most by an Australian across the six Tests. Such was his form, it was suggested Cummins should be taking the new ball.
In a further good sign on the pace front for Australia, Jhye Richardson replaced Hazlewood versus Sri Lanka and was handy. The 22-year-old took six wickets in the series.
Nathan Lyon enjoyed another strong summer and was, alongside Cummins, Australia's best bowler against India. The off-spinner finished that series with an equal-high 21 wickets – alongside the hugely impressive Jasprit Bumrah – to lift Australia as Starc and Hazlewood largely struggled.
Australia will need more from Starc and Hazlewood during the Ashes, and the latter will certainly enjoy the seaming conditions not often offered on flat wickets at home. But with Cummins also approaching his best, Australia have yet another pace option capable of causing England problems.
England, meanwhile, chopped and changed their attack in overseas conditions, but will likely revert to a more tried-and-tested battery of seamers on home turf.
Stuart Broad may not be a regular on the team's travels anymore, but he will undoubtedly play a leading role in the Ashes, alongside the evergreen James Anderson.
Moeen Ali also is locked in as the frontline spinner – England are unlikely to pick two unless the conditions at any of the venues are certain to suit – and, while his form with the bat has dipped over the past year, the all-rounder has taken 177 Test wickets in 58 Test appearances.
With Stokes - fitness permitting - certain to be in the team too, England appear to have one seamer spot up for grabs.
Mark Wood burst back onto the Test scene with a scintillating spell in St Lucia that the national selectors will struggle to forget. The Durham paceman’s injury record makes him far from a certainty to complete such a congested series, even if two fragile-looking batting units suggest there could be a few extra days of rest.
Sam Curran was England's new golden boy at the end of 2018 before his reputation lost a little shine on pitches that failed to suit in the Caribbean, while Olly Stone's tour was cut short by a back injury. Wood was his replacement and may well have skipped to the front of the queue with his five-wicket haul.
England are favourites to regain the urn on home soil, mainly due to the fact Australia have not won an Ashes away series since 2001.
The hosts prevailed 3-2 four years ago and a repeat result would not be a surprise, considering how both teams are strong in the bowling department. The tourists' hopes may rest on Smith and Warner quickly settling back in, but previous issues for the Aussies against the moving ball may once again come back to haunt them.
Like Swiss cheese, these teams have holes. However, their problems - plus being prone to batting collapses - should make for entertaining viewing.