Ian Botham has warned that England will be "playing into Australia's hands" if flat pitches are prepared for the Investec Ashes.

Botham, the former England captain, is concerned that a desire to maximise ticket sales could convince the grounds hosting the Tests to prepare easy-paced, flat tracks with a view to trying to ensure that each match lasts the full five days. But he insisted such a tactic would be an error and feels that, if the series is played on surfaces offering bowlers some assistance, England have the team to surprise Australia.

"We don't want flat wickets," Botham said. "That's playing right into Australia's hands. The pitch at Lord's for the Test against New Zealand was a great pitch. Pitches like that serve up great cricket. Please don't serve up five-day corporate pitches. If you do we might as well send the Ashes back now because that'll play right into Australia's hands.

"I'm not sure they will dare to prepare flat wickets. We'll be on their case and so will the written media and the public too because they've got used to seeing an expressive England. They don't want boring cricket.

"If we play on good sporting pitches England have got a good chance against Australia. They're at home. Everybody is expecting Australia to come here and cruise to victory but I just don't see that. I think it will be very close."

At the heart of Botham's confidence is his faith in England's young players. He believes Joe Root is playing "magnificently" and rates Ben Stokes as England's most promising allrounder since his own career ended.

"Ben Stokes is the real thing," Botham said. "He's got the right attitude. He's a tough competitor and is a good enough bowler and good enough batsman. He didn't have much luck with the ball in the Tests v New Zealand - he had a few catches dropped off him - but that can suddenly change.

"I've been impressed since I first saw him a couple of years ago. How anybody could possibly leave him out of the World Cup is totally beyond me. But that decision was made and Stokes reacted in the best way possible - he turned up, scored runs and took wickets. He's also a very good fielder. He goes out there and plays with no fear and he's very strong mentally. That's the way he is going to play and that's why he'll win you games.

"I've spoken to him, I get on well with him. Hopefully we'll get a chance at some point during the Ashes to get a bite to eat and have a chat. It's just general talk when we do, if he's got something technical to ask he'll ask. He's got the coaching staff, I'm just there as a mate.

"He's learning about swinging the ball, about variation at the crease, variation of pace. He's young but he's got real talent. I think he is special."

But Botham also urged the senior bowlers - Stuart Broad and James Anderson - to lead from the front and demonstrate the positive cricket the younger players showed in their absence during the limited-overs games against New Zealand.

"You've got a guy on more than 400 wickets and another guy approaching 300," Botham said. "Those two are your senior bowlers. They need to turn up and they know that.

"They've got to perform and they've got to be aggressive. I think teams have worked out England used to sit back with defensive fields and wait for sides to make mistakes. You can't do that now. This Australian team will go at you hard so I think England have got to come back hard.

"They have to try and hit the stumps. The best spells I've seen Broad bowl were The Oval in 2009, where he hit the top of off stump, and then at Durham in 2013, where he changed the game in a session. I think it's essential he tries to hit the top of off. He must not sit back and try and bowl a length because you're not going to win matches with that."

Hardys of Australia, proud sponsors of England cricket. Show your support this summer with #HardysENG or #HardysAUS to win prizes

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo