It has been a little over a week since Ben Stokes’ heroics rescued England’s Ashes hopes from the depths of despair and hurled them kicking and screaming over the line in front of a capacity crowd at Headingley in Leeds on day four of the third test. That improbable one-wicket victory means that with just two tests to go and with the Ashes series level at 1-1, whoever wins the fourth test in Manchester cannot lose the series come to the fifth and final test at The Oval in London starting September 12th.
Series hosts, England, are slight favourites to reclaim the Ashes urn at 7/5 while Australia is at 11/5 to win an unprecedented away Ashes series and retain the famous urn. It is worth mentioning , however, that as current holders, the Aussies just need to draw the series to retain the Ashes. Punters can get a price of 15/8 for an outcome of a drawn series.
For the fourth test, however, the teams are priced much closer together with England (6/4) marginal favourites over Australia (17/10). The Baggy Greens will be buoyed by the return of the star batsman and top run-scorer Steve Smith who missed the third test due to concussion after a severe blow from a savage bouncer from England paceman Jofra Archer. Despite Tim Paine’s team being in a dominant position throughout the third test, after they had dismissed their hosts for a paltry 67 in their opening innings, their batting fragilities were brought to the fore once again as they failed to pass the 300-run mark in either of their innings. Even with Smith (378) missing one-and-a-half matches, the former skipper leads Stokes (327) by 51 runs in the total runs tally for the series with the next best Australian, Marnus Labuschagne, in fourth place with 213 runs to his total.
Smith currently averages 126 with the bat in the series, at a very healthy strike rate of 64.39, and has scored 27% of his teams runs when he has played. The importance of the 30-year old unorthodox batsman from Sydney cannot be underestimated. Smith returned to action for his team when they recently played local side Derbyshire in a three-day warm-up match. The right-hander batted just once, scoring 23 runs before he was caught after an encouraging 38-ball stint at the crease. Smith, who has scored 2 centuries and a fifty so far is priced at 19/10 to add a third century to his tally and at 12/25 to score another half-century. The princely return of 11/4 awaits punters who back the returning Smith to be the top run-scorer (first and second innings combined) in the match.
However, Smith is not the only Australian to have seen his stock rise this series. South African-born Marnus Labuschagne, who incidentally was first brought into the side as a substitute for Smith during the second test, has looked the part from the onset and has continued to churn out the runs, 213 in total. The 25-year old has scores of 59, 74 and 80 in his three innings and you wouldn’t discount him going one better and turning the promising half-centuries into a maiden test ton. The man who hails from Klerksdorp, North West can be backed to score a hundred at 33/10.
For England, the Herculean efforts of Ben Stokes have covered over the cracks of their fragile batting line-up. The hosts have taken steps to address their shortcomings with the bat by dropping struggling South African-born opener Jason Roy down the order to number four and promoting Joe Denly to open with Rory Burns. 33-year old Denly hit his top-score in the third test, with 50, batting at number four. Denly will face a different challenge up the order but will have opportunities to score more freely against the new ball and attacking field settings. Punters can cash in by backing him to score over 25.5 runs at 17/20 or back England’s new-ball bowlers to have the better of the right-hander and go under 25.5 runs at the same price. There’s good value in backing Denly to score his second half-century of the series at 13/10 or 11/2 for him to bring up his maiden test hundred in what will be his seventh match.
The bowlers have been in top form throughout the series and no doubt they’ll be at the forefront of proceedings at Old Trafford once again. Rookie paceman Jofra Archer and leading wicket-taker (17 wickets) Pat Cummins can be backed to be the top wicket-taker at 9/2. However, a more tempting wager for punters might be on Mitchell Starc, who is likely to beat off Peter Siddle for the seamers spot vacated by James Pattison. The left-arm swing bowler is yet to play in the series but was in decent form during Australia’s recent warm-up encounter against Derbyshire where the 29-year old took seven wickets in the match. Punters can get 6/1 for Starc to take the most wickets of either team or 5/2 to take the most wickets by an Australian.
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