Punters could burn fingers on the Ashes

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Their captain is playing like a pub team's No 11 and they were thumped three times in a row in the one-day series, but Australia will go to Edgbaston for the first Test on Thursday as William Hill's firm favourites to open the Ashes series in convincing fashion. The tourists are 11-10 to win the match, and far shorter still, at 4-9, to win the series, while an England victory in the Test is the firm outsider of three, a 3-1 chance against the 6-4 on offer for a draw.

The prices are not encouraging for Mike Atherton, but the England captain can take comfort from the fact that the odds have moved in his direction in recent weeks. England were 6-1 to reclaim the Ashes just a month ago, but now stand at 4-1, even if it is hard to avoid the feeling that things may all appear very different when the serious business gets underway.

Mark Taylor's dreadful run of form must be a worry for the tourists (Hills have yet to complete their betting on the top run-scorer in the series, but reckon Taylor will be comfortably into double figures, which for an opener is plain insulting). Should his failure persist beyond the first Test, however, and be perceived as a drag on his colleagues, there can be little doubt he will be swiftly removed, and the rest of the batting line-up cannot be faulted.

It is also hard to believe that Shane Warne will not rediscover his best form in time to win at least one Test almost single-handed. English fans can hope for the return of the Ashes, but even at 4-1, risking hard cash would take patriotism too far.

There is far more cause for optimism where England's footballers are concerned after their thoroughly professional victory in Poland on Saturday. Glenn Hoddle's side is now the best-placed of the teams lying second in their World Cup qualifying groups to gain automatic qualification for France in 1998, although Fifa's tortuous rules - qualification depends on results against the first, third and fourth teams in each group - ensure that nothing can be taken for granted.

Hills, however, are all but convinced that England will make it, offering them at 1-7 to qualify, and 4-1 to miss out. Given their team's chequered recent history, some fans may take the latter price simply to provide some consolation if it all goes horribly wrong.

FIRST TEST (Edgbaston, Thursday) best prices: 6-4 Australia (Ladbrokes), 6-4 the draw (Hills), 3-1 England (Hills). Series betting: 8-15 Australia (Ladbrokes), 4-1 England (Hills), 4-1 drawn series (Ladbrokes).

Greg Wood