By Shane Thomas
With the probable exception of the Summer Olympics, there's no sporting event I relish more than the Ashes. My dislike of the summer months is tempered by England versus Australia: five Test matches; a true and comprehensive examination of the cricketing strength of the two nations; cricket's oldest rivalry.
Australia begin tomorrow's opening Test at Cardiff as warranted favourites to retain the urn that they won in lethiferous fashion in 2013/14. The rejoinder to this is that England showed the nascent signs of recovery in their recent thrilling encounters against New Zealand, added to the fact that Australia haven't won a series in England since 2001 (in the era of Steven Waugh's merciless captaincy).
The marquee name for Australia will be Mitchell Johnson, once a punchline for England fans, left them searching in vain for a new tune, as his coruscating performance in the 2013/14 whitewash finally realised the potential that led Dennis Lillee to dub him a "once in a generation cricketer". However, the Aussies are no one-man team. In fact, Johnson has been in relatively middling form, but there are others wearing their "baggy green" who are just as capable of shining over the next seven weeks.
A pivotal player will be David Warner. The spiky, combative opening batsman is in the mould of the old-school Aussie larrikin. While stating that recent fatherhood and domestic bliss has mellowed him, do not expect that to affect his on-field deportment.
A naturally aggressive batsman, who excels when his team have an advatange earned by their bowlers, Warner is the batting embodiment of the forest fire. If given sufficient oxygen, he will torch England's bowling. Australia like to make an early statement in Ashes contests - see Michael Slater (twice) or Matthew Hayden. Warner will look to follow in this vein.
While Warner will try to set the tone for Australia, it's even more crucial for England that captain, Alastair Cook can so the same for the hosts. Coming out of the worst period of his career, Cook looks to have regained his form against New Zealand.
While the disquiet around his captaincy skills are unlikely to go away, his batting makes him indispensable. Australia make a habit of targeting opposing skippers, and they will definitely have plans to nullify Cook. England's more chimeric traits will mean little if they don't have the secure base provided by Cook. He will probably need to score at least 500 runs in the series for England to have any chance of regaining the Ashes.
The jewel in both sides batting lineups are Steve Smith for Australia, and Joe Root for England. There will be understandable focus on both men. They are both each nation's respective heir apparents for the captaincy, they both bat in a exciting style, and both have the potential to be the finest batsman of their generation.
However, one area that should not be overlooked are the lower order of both teams. Despite losing the last series 5-0, England had propitious positions in 2013/14, taking Australia's first 5 wickets for modest scores, before the Aussies' tail pointedly wagged, and given that there's no bunnies in that side, they have the players to do so again.
It's been an ongoing problem for England since 2012, and unless they figure out a solution this summer, their chances of winning the series are nil. Meanwhile, in the previous contest Australia - primarily through Johnson - went through England's batting like a chicken 3 weeks past its sell-by date in one's digestive system. Johnson, Nathan Lyon, and Mitchell Starc are all skilled at getting out the tail. While some may think Moeen Ali is too good to bat as a Number 8, it may turn out that his run scoring will be more important than his duties as England's spinner.
Australia's bowling is so strong - with impressive back-up options in the event of injuries - that scoring failures for England's batsman are inevitable. The ones who do manage to get runs have to get big runs. 40's and 50's will be insufficient, centuries are a must, preferably closer to to 200 than 100.
It's vital that England make an assertive start. It's seldom that a team wins an Ashes after losing the 1st Test. If Australia win in Cardiff, this could be a long, tough summer for England. While Australia comfortably have players with more experience, if England can draw these Test matches out for as long as possible (4 to 5 days each time), they may be able to wear Australia down. It's a condensed schedule, with little time to rest. If the series is still live by the team we get to The Oval, England may be the fresher team.
A big - and wearying - intangible will be the mentality of the players. Despite conversation around taking a different approach, there's little doubt that this series will be rife with sledging, with Ben Stokes a certain target. While England's potential trump card, his handbrake-off mindset and fiery temper leaves him as likely to harm his own game, instead of the opposition's.
Unlike the fiercely competitive - but sporting - way the Ashes was conducted in 2005, this series will likely take place in an atmosphere of rancour. I get the impression, that beyond the nationalism and desperation to beat their opponent, both sets of players largely dislike each other as individuals.
While not ideal, there's no doubt that it will make for riveting viewing. So, to paraphrase Muhammad Ali, "let's get it on, cos' they don't get along!"
AND IN OTHER NEWS...
One of the (domestic) subplots from the first week of Wimbledon have been the complaints around the BBC's highlights show, Wimbledon 2Day. While some of these grievances have plenty of merit - Giles Smith's column was pretty fair-minded - what I found most disconcerting was the low-level clamour for John Inverdale to be restored to fronting the show, instead of current host, Clare Balding.
Have people forgotten why the BBC took Inverdale off their television coverage of Wimbledon? Remember his sexist comments about Marion Bartoli after she won the tournament in 2013? It's not only erroneous, but harmful to draw equivalence with the quality of BBC's coverage and Inverdale's presence.
While a more than competent broadcaster - he's been moved to commentary duties for this year's Wimbledon - the issue is that some viewers seem to think being entertained is more important than having a presenter who doesn't reify sexism - as if we should have to put up with Inverdale as if we couldn't possibly find anyone who perform the same duties, without being bigoted on air.
Not that Balding has anything to prove, but she is a more than accomplished broadcaster of her own, and the faults with Wimbledon 2Day were largely due to its presentation, not the presenter. The highlights show has mercifully simplified its format, and is more watchable as a result. But even if it had remained the same, that's never a reason for us to throw morality in the dustbin, just because we're not getting tennis coverage exactly as we want it.
 - Particularly given that his opening partner, Adam Lyth appears to be vulnerable to balls directed just outside his off-stump. Josh Hazlewood may have plenty of fun bowling to him.
 - This is something both countries bear responsibility for.
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