Ricky Ponting has delivered a scathing assessment of England’s Ashes prospects, claiming Joe Root’s team is beset by form and injury concerns, has an ageing new-ball attack that’s in decline and will struggle to win a match in a series that Australia will sweep 4-0.
Ponting, who led Australia in 77 Tests and four Ashes campaigns, admits his forecast is uncharacteristically bullish but has been prompted in part as a response to the scorn heaped upon Australia’s batting stocks by ex-England greats Sir Ian Botham and Graeme Swann.
Botham recently described Australia's top-order batting line-up as "one of the poorest I’ve seen" while former off-spinner Swann – who quit cricket mid-tour during Australia’s 5-0 Ashes whitewash in 2013-14 – claimed it was "one of the weakest (batting) line-ups they have had" over the past two decades.
But Ponting hit back by declaring that, rather than cast aspersions on Australia's personnel, England should "be looking in their own backyards" and adding that the historic day-night Test in Adelaide stands as England’s only realistic hope of winning a match in the upcoming Magellan Ashes Series.
He claimed that at no stage over the past 15 years has he seen such a modest complement of batters in England Test caps as they have unveiled over the past six to eight months, during which time only one top-order specialist (skipper Root) has averaged above 45 across seven Tests in the UK.
He also pointed to the uncertainty surrounding the involvement in the series of England's key allrounder Ben Stokes (currently suspended during a police investigation into his alleged involvement in a street brawl) and the recent injuries sustained by seamers Steve Finn (returned to England due to knee trouble) and Jake Ball (sprained ankle).
And while he acknowledged Australia’s selectors remain uncertain as to who will fill the No.6 and wicketkeeper roles come the opening Test at the Gabba starting on November 23, Ponting reckons those concerns pale alongside the respective form lines of the rival teams' pace-bowling outfits.
"I’ve been a bit more outward than normal about this one because I honestly think that Australia will win really easily," Ponting told cricket.com.au in an exclusive interview.
"If you look through the current England team, they're searching for an opener, they’re searching for a number three, Stokes mightn’t be there, a couple of their quicks have gone down.
"(England quicks James) Anderson and (Stuart) Broad, as good as they’ve been over the years, I think they’re on the steady decline. They’re not going to get better from here as cricketers, (though) they're hanging on to a reasonably high level of performance.
"Then you match it up against our team and we’ve got (Mitchell) Starc, (Pat) Cummins and (Josh) Hazlewood who are skyrocketing – those guys are on the up.
"And you see this around all sporting teams, you look at guys that are on the way up, that are starting to progress. If they get a sniff early then they’ll run with it and they’ll be near unstoppable, those three guys.
"(Spinner) Nathan Lyon’s last few years have been outstanding, so I just think right now England have got more gaps and more cause for concern in, not only in their eleven but in their entire squad, than what Australia have."
Ponting claims the criticisms levelled by Botham and Swann overlook the reality of Australia’s top-order prowess in their home conditions.
Of the top five expected to face England in the starting XI for the first two Tests, to be named later this week, David Warner (average 59.22 in Tests in Australia), Matthew Renshaw (63.00), Usman Khawaja (63.74), Steve Smith (68.66) and Peter Handscomb (99.75) all boast significant experience and exceptional records against the Kookaburra ball, on familiar pitches in front of home crowds.
"I reckon they’re going okay, those blokes, I don’t reckon it’s that weak at all," Ponting said.
By contrast, of England’s current touring party only Root (Test average in Australia 27.43), former captain Alastair Cook (49.54), Garry Ballance (12.50), keeper Jonny Bairstow (12.25) and Stokes (34.88) among their possible top-order can claim previous involvement in the heat of an Ashes battle down under.
Stokes' participation remains unknown, and likely batting options Mark Stoneman (Cook’s opening partner), James Vince (No.3) and Dawid Malan (No.5) are on their inaugural Test visits to Australia with Malan revealing last week he had never before set foot in the country until the squad landed in Perth.
The trio (along with recalled batter Ballance) have earned their chances after England's selectors over the past year have trialled – and discarded – Haseeb Hameed, Ben Duckett, Keaton Jennings and Tom Westley in their search for Test batting stability.
"Let’s wait and see, everyone’s got their own opinion on the way they think this series will go and how the individual players will go, but I’m pretty confident that we’ve got a group of guys there who are going to make it really hard for England to win a game," Ponting said.
"I think they (Botham and Swann) should be looking in their own backyards before they start worrying about ours.
"I don’t remember seeing too many England teams, certainly in the last 15 years anyway, with some of the batsmen that I’ve seen them play over the last six to eight months.
"Some of the guys I’ve seen I’m not too enamoured with.
"My prediction is that I think it will be four-nil Australia, and I think the best chance that England have got will be in Adelaide where a night game, pink ball, the night time conditions will suit Anderson and Broad down to the ground.
"But if they don’t win that one, I can’t see them winning one."
2017-18 International Fixtures:
Magellan Ashes Series
First Test Gabba, November 23-27. Buy tickets
Second Test Adelaide Oval, December 2-6 (Day-Night). Buy tickets
Third Test WACA Ground, December 14-18. Buy tickets
Fourth Test MCG, December 26-30. Buy tickets
Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Buy tickets
Gillette ODI Series v England
First ODI MCG, January 14. Buy tickets
Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Buy tickets
Third ODI SCG, January 21. Buy tickets
Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Buy tickets
Fifth ODI Perth TBC, January 28. Join the ACF
Prime Minister's XI
PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Buy tickets
Gillette T20 INTL Series
First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Buy tickets
Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Buy tickets
Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Buy tickets
Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 13
Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16
Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18
Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21