London: England will find themselves in the unusual position of firm favourites when they begin the defence of the Ashes against Australia at Nottingham`s Trent Bridge ground next week.
The hosts are bidding for a third successive series win over their arch-rivals -- something they last achieved back in the 1950s.
While an Australia attack featuring Peter Siddle and James Pattinson could yet prove a match for England seamers such as James Anderson and Stuart Broad, provided they remain free of injuries, the outcome of the series is likely to hinge on the performance of the tourists` batsmen.
Australia captain Michael Clarke apart, the visitors` top-order does not boast another proven world-class run-scorer.
When England won the last Ashes series in Australia in 2010/11 3-1, all three of their victories were by an innings -- a reflection of their batting strength and Australia`s batting weakness.
The hope expressed this week by former Australia all-rounder Tom Moody was that, just as in 1989 when Australia were written off ahead of the Ashes only to win 4-0, a new star batsman will emerge just as Steve Waugh did 24 years ago.
But former Australia captain Ian Chappell was gloomy about Australia`s prospects of regaining the urn.
"I just don`t see any way Australia can beat England," Chappell, who added he also expected England to win the return series in Australia starting in November, told the Guardian`s website in an interview.
Australia sacked coach Mickey Arthur just 16 days before this Ashes series and replaced him with Darren Lehmann after poor results, including a 4-0 series loss in India in March, were compounded by off-field problems.
South African Arthur, controversially dropped four players from the Test team in India, including then vice-captain Shane Watson, for failing to complete `homework` while the early part of the tour of England was overshadowed by the ban, which expires with the first Test, given to batsman David Warner for punching home batsman Joe Root in a Birmingham bar.
Chappell, long distrustful of the influence of coaches, was keen to stress former Australia batsman Lehmann`s limits by writing in his Cricinfo column: "The coach doesn`t make any runs or take any wickets.”
"Many a player has felt positive and strong sitting in a hotel lounge, listening to a rousing speech. The problem comes the next day when, under intense scrutiny, he actually has to find a way to score runs against the swing of a Jimmy Anderson and the guile of (off-spinner) Graeme Swann."
Chappell added Australia had an attack capable of taking 20 wickets economically - "the toughest task in cricket".
But it was a batting lineup missing not only former captain Ricky Ponting but also Michael Hussey, who unlike his old skipper retired when still in form, that most concerned Chappell.
Clarke cannot be expected to do all the run-scoring by himself and that means at least a couple out of the recalled Chris Rogers, Watson -- who has only scored two Test hundreds -- Phil Hughes, Warner and possibly Usman Khawaja if given the chance, must come good if Australia are to win the series.
"No matter the strength of the Australian attack, they can`t conjure up victory without considerable help from the batsmen. That`s where the big improvement must come from," Chappell said.
While it`s possible that individual members of England`s top order could have poor series, the chances are that a line-up featuring skipper Alastair Cook, the reliable Jonathan Trott and star batsman Kevin Pietersen, not to mention wicketkeeper Matt Prior, failing to deliver competitive totals are slim.
Having said that, England plan to promote Joe Root up the order to open alongside Cook while middle-order batsman Jonny Bairstow is still looking for the re-assurance of a first Test hundred.
Shortly before Mike Gatting led England to Ashes glory in 1986/87, one reporter wrote the team only had three problems - "they can`t bat, can`t bowl and can`t field".
But the side found its form on that occasion and Gatting warned England not to be complacent this season.
"Yes, we played poorly in the warm-ups, but we didn`t deserve to be tagged the way we were because the guys were passionate about what they were doing," Gatting told Saturday`s Daily Mirror.
"That is exactly what Michael Clarke will be looking for and because it is the Ashes, that is what he is likely to get."