England and Australia skippers Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke posing with the Ashes urn. (Getty Images)
Nottingham: A battle-hardened and experienced England side go into the first Ashes Test of the five-match series against a callow-looking Australian team as strong favourites to retain the urn. While Australian preparations have been dogged by problems on and off the pitch, Alastair Cook's England have quietly gone about their business, beating New Zealand 2-0 in a warm-up series and naming a familiar 13-man squad.
The mercurial Kevin Pietersen has been recalled after missing the New Zealand series due to injury and his presence in the middle order gives Cook another major weapon in his first Ashes series as captain.
England batsmen have made over 80 Test centuries between them, Cook leading the way with 25 followed by Pietersen on 22. But the team's recent success has been built around their fast-bowling attack led by James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Steven Finn, Tim Bresnan and Graham Onions are fighting for the final place in the attack with offspinner Graeme Swann certain to play.
"The English quicks are certainly as good as there are in the world at the moment and have been for the last few years," said Australia opener Shane Watson. "It is the ultimate challenge to be able to take on the best bowlers with a brand new ball, sometimes with bowler-friendly conditions as well."
England coach Andy Flower said his squad is ready for the ultimate battle. "This bunch of cricketers has fought a lot of campaigns and won a lot together. They are match-hardened - that should give them a lot of confidence. We were pretty clear what our squad would be and what our XI will be."
Watson will be a key player for Australia and will open the batting with the 35-year-old Chris Rogers who has only played one Test match in his career. The retirements of Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey have left Australia very short of experience in the middle order and the form of captain Michael Clarke will be vital.
Clarke has struggled with a back injury this year, missing last month's Champions Trophy, but he has looked in good touch in the warm-up matches. Clarke's form with the bat since taking over the captaincy has been outstanding and he has made 23 Test centuries in total, nearly twice as many as his team-mates have managed between them.
Clarke has kept his final XI under wraps but suggested he might go in with David Warner despite him not having much cricket coming into the series. If selected, he will bat in the middle order with Australia having named their openers.
Peter Siddle, James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc will lead the pace attack, probably supported by offspinner Nathan Lyon who is a more of a containing bowler than a genuine wicket-taker like Swann. Ryan Harris and Jackson Bird appear likely to miss out.
England have won three of the last four Ashes series, including a 3-1 victory in Australia in 2010-11, but the appointment of Darren Lehmann as coach two weeks ago gives the touring side a better chance of reclaiming the urn.
England: 1 Alastair Cook (capt), 2 Joe Root, 3 Jonathan Trott, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Ian Bell, 6 Jonny Bairstow, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Tim Bresnan, 9 Stuart Broad, 10 Graeme Swann, 11 James Anderson.
Australia: 1 Shane Watson, 2 Chris Rogers, 3 Ed Cowan, 4 Michael Clarke (capt), 5 Phillip Hughes, 6 David Warner, 7 Brad Haddin (wk), 8 Mitchell Starc, 9 Peter Siddle, 10 James Pattinson, 11 Nathan Lyon