On Wednesday the time will come for the talking to stop and the cricket to start in what is without question the biggest and fiercest battle in cricket.
The anticipation is building ahead of what should be an outstanding series, with the hopes of the English cricketing public raised by their swashbuckling approach to the ODI series against New Zealand.
England are still hurting from their humiliating whitewash down under in 2013-14 and are desperate to regain the urn against an Australia side who haven’t won the Ashes on English soil since 2001.
Turn the clock back a few months after another dismal World Cup campaign and poor Test series in the West Indies and the chances of an England victory in this series looked slim to none. Peter Moores has been sacked as coach and replaced by Australian Trevor Bayliss and the interim coach Paul Farbrace has breathed fresh life into this England side. There is a sense of momentum behind this youthful and exuberant team and, despite the obvious strength of this impressive Australian side, there is an optimism that England can make life more difficult for the tourists than was previously thought.
But where will this series be won and lost? Who are the key men we are going to be watching over the next couple of months and how can they change the course of this fierce Ashes battle?
THE CAPTAINS: ALASTAIR COOK v MICHAEL CLARKE
Batsman Tests Runs Average Hundreds
Cook 114 9000 46.87 27
Clarke 110 8511 50.66 28
As Captain Tests Won Lost Drew
Cook 33 14 10 9
Clarke 42 22 13 7
One of the crucial factors in this series will be which leader gets the best out of his side. Michael Clarke is widely regarded as one of the best captains in the world and lead his side to World Cup success on home soil in March. Clarke is a naturally aggressive captain and has a tendency to be innovative and to take risks in pursuit of a victory.
Alastair Cook is naturally a more conservative and cautious captain but there will be huge onus on him to abandon those tendencies and allow the new aggression of this English side to flourish. The Australians will attack England and that will be the big test of Cook’s leadership. He must not revert to type and go into his shell.
Both have experience in the job and both have solid Test records as captain and outstanding records as batsman. Cook needs to score big runs at the top of the order and lead by example because in pure captaincy terms, the Australians will win this battle.
THE NUMBER 3’s: GARY BALLANCE V STEVE SMITH
Batsman Tests Runs Average Hundreds
Ballance 13 1096 52.19 4
Smith 28 2587 56.23 9
Since making his debut in the last Ashes Test in Sydney in 2014, Gary Ballance has nailed down the number three spot with a string of superb performances. His record shows terrific figures by anyone’s standards.
However, in the recent New Zealand series the Kiwi’s exposed some major technical flaws in his technique. He scored 0, 1, 6 and 29 in that series. Batting so deep in his crease he was almost eating sandwiches with the members, he was beaten time and time again by the outswinger. Whereas previously bowlers had targeted his pads, there is now a clear opening as to how to get at Ballance and he must fix that flaw quickly with pressure on his place in the side.
Once a batsman with an unusual and questionable technique, Steve Smith has flourished to become the number one batsman in the world. He was named the Australian Test and One-Day Player of the Year for 2015. Since the start of the last Ashes series, Smith has an average of 75.91 and has scored eight hundreds. He has been moved up from the middle order to number three and will be tested against the swinging ball but he is without doubt the world’s form batsman and is a major threat to England in this series.
THE ALL-ROUNDERS: BEN STOKES V SHANE WATSON/MITCHELL MARSH
Player Tests Runs Batting Av. Wickets Bowling Av.
Ben Stokes 11 643 34.15 29 43.24
Shane Watson 58 3682 35.40 75 33.05
Mitchell Marsh 4 262 37.42 1 164.00
This is one of the areas where the Australian selection is a little uncertain, although 34-year-old Shane Watson is expected to get the nod over his younger rival for the first Test in Cardiff on the back of his superiority with the ball.
Marsh certainly pushed his case in the warm-up games, scoring centuries against both Kent and Essex, but his inexperience and potential lack of control with the ball is where Watson is expected to edge him out. Watson also did ok in those warm-up games, scoring two half-centuries, but pressure will be firmly on him with Marsh breathing down his neck.
Ben Stokes had a brilliant series against New Zealand with the bat but not the ball. His lightning fast century at Lords was exhilarating to watch and his role as a counter-attacking batsman in this side in well-defined. He took just four wickets in that series though and needs to up his game with the ball. Australia are well-aware of what Stokes can do after he scored a century in the third Test down under in the last Ashes. The Durham man is in-form and full of confidence which gives England the edge in this battle.
THE SPINNERS: MOEEN ALI v NATHAN LYON
Spinner Tests Wickets Bowling Av. Economy
Moeen Ali 11 33 32.60 3.62
Nathan Lyon 41 146 34.73 3.15
The inclusion of Adil Rashid in the England squad has increased questions about Moeen Ali’s place in the team, questions that began to be asked following dismal bowling performances in the West Indies and against New Zealand. He had a terrific series against India last year, giving England hope that they had found the ideal replacement for Graeme Swann.
Since then however, he has not looked like a Test match quality spinner. His ability as a batsman helps his cause but England need a spinner who is capable of winning matches and that has not looked like Moeen of late. His economy rate is high and the likes of David Warner and Michael Clarke will surely target him. Moeen is a real concern for England and Adil Rashid should be considered as a genuine alternative.
England will also look to target Australia’s spinner Nathan Lyon, just as Essex did in the latest warm-up game. Lyon has always been a better spinner that the common media view of him would suggest and has recently become Australia’s most successful off-spinner. While he does bowl a fair few loose deliveries, Lyon is a threat on a turning pitch and easily has the edge on Moeen in the battle of the spinners.
LEADERS OF THE ATTACK: JAMES ANDERSON v MITCHELL JOHNSON
Bowler Tests Wickets Bowling Av. Economy
James Anderson 104 403 29.42 3.05
Mitchell Johnson 66 291 27.58 3.27
This promises to be an intriguing contest between two of the best seamers in the world. James Anderson recently became England’s leading wicket-taker of all time and in English conditions is at the peak of his powers. As the leader of the attack for a number of years now, Anderson has been nothing short of superb for England and they are still heavily reliant on him taking vast numbers of wickets.
Mitchell Johnson burst onto the scene and took huge swathes of wickets at that start of his Test career. But in 2009 he struggled badly with English conditions and was very expensive despite taking 20 wickets in the five matches. He wasn’t picked in 2013 and so there are questions over Johnson in English conditions. However Johnson tortured England in Australia in the last series and looks a totally different bowler to the man we saw in 2009. He took 37 wickets at an average of 13.97 down under and was a key component in their World Cup win. England will not be looking forward to facing Johnson and his 90mph plus pace.
This is a battle that is too close to call. Both will surely take a bucket load of wickets and will be a serious threat to the batting line-ups of the opposition.