England Seeks to Add to British Success With Ashes Victory

England cricket captain Alastair Cook would love to extend last weekend’s British sporting success into his team’s Ashes series against Australia.

Following Andy Murray becoming the first Wimbledon men’s champion from Britain since 1936 and the British and Irish Lions winning their first rugby series in 16 years, England and Australia renew a rivalry stretching back to 1882 today at Trent Bridge in Nottingham with the first of five Test matches.

“It was an incredible moment for British sport when Andy won Wimbledon and when the Lions won after such a long period,” Cook said yesterday at a news conference. “We’d love to be able to join them in that success, but there’s a lot of hard work to do first.”

Cook won the toss this morning and elected to bat first. Australian captain Michael Clarke handed 19-year-old left-arm spin bowler Ashton Agar his Test debut in place of regular spinner Nathan Lyon.

“It may be a surprise to some, but not to us,” Clarke told Sky Sports after the coin toss. “He’s bowled really well and England have a lot of right-handers.”

England is the 1-3 favorite with bookmaker William Hill Plc to win the Ashes for a third straight time, meaning a successful $3 bet returns $1 plus the original stake. Australia is a 4-1 choice, with the odds for a series draw at 6-1.

Australian Uncertainty

The visiting team enters the Ashes with uncertainty on and off the pitch. Australia was beaten 4-0 by India in March, the first time it’s been swept in a series of more than three Tests since 1970, and coach Mickey Arthur was fired June 24 and replaced by Darren Lehmann.

Several team members also have been disciplined for breaches of conduct this year, the latest being last month when David Warner was punished for punching England’s Joe Root in a bar during the Champions Trophy tournament. That’s helped send most of the betting money England’s way.

“We’re still not convinced Australia are not in severe disarray,” William Hill spokesman Rupert Adams said in a telephone interview. “There is a theory that Lehmann’s return will make a difference. But it doesn’t change the fact that you changed your coach two weeks before.”

Australia has a 31-30 lead all-time in the Ashes, with five draws. England has won three of the four series since Australia ran off eight straight wins between 1989 and 2003.

Pietersen Returns

The host is bolstered by the return of Kevin Pietersen, who’s been sidelined from the national team since March by a knee injury. The 33-year-old batsman, who made his Test debut in the 2005 Ashes, averages 52.7 runs against Australia, more than

3.5 runs better than his career average.

“He’s ready to play,” Cook said. “He’s performed on numerous occasions when the pressure’s at its biggest. He loves the big occasion and it doesn’t surprise me if he scores a lot of runs.”

Australia also gets a boost with Clarke, named the leading cricketer of 2012 by Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, returning from a back injury that forced him out of the final match of the India series.

“It’s about time I scored some runs for Australia,” Clarke, who scored a national-record 1,595 Test runs last year, said yesterday. “I’m going to make sure I’m focused on my job. I’ve got to make sure I’m scoring runs and leading by example.”

England’s 3-1 series win in 2010-11 was its first on Australian soil in 24 years. Another triumph would give it three consecutive victories for the first time since 1956.

“It obviously hurt losing the last two Ashes series and that will never go away,” Australia vice-captain Brad Haddin told reporters two days ago. “But it’s a new campaign, new dreams are made, new experiences are about to be had. It’s important we move forward and enjoy this for what it is.”