Well, here we are - it's late May and the season is now pretty much in full swing. Of course, it's not just any summer - still nearly 2 months away, yes, but it's an Ashes summer, and the most anticipated Ashes since... well, 2002\03.
In all seriousness, the anticipation this summer is high, but it's still probably no greater than 2001. Coming into that summer, England had just won four series on the bounce and, unlike 2002\03 where if we're brutally honest the chances were close to zero, had the wind in the sails. The similarity with 2005 is strangely photographic - two wholly comfortable series victories the previous summer followed by a winter campaign in which an historic achievement was made. In 2000\01 it was twin victories in Pakistan and Sri Lanka; in 2004\05 the first team aside from Australia to win in South Africa since re-admission. The more recent momentous spell can be traced back slightly further than the 2001 one, however - who will ever forget the jubilant, crushing victory in West Indies?
With this in mind, we can say with some justification that England have the best chance since 1986\87. Just how much that actually means is another matter, but let's consider it anyway. The unprecedented post-Apartheid victory in South Africa was achieved with very few players matching expectations, least of all the man talked-up perhaps highest of all. Nonetheless, 4 England bowlers unquestionably enhanced their reputation in the series - Matthew Hoggard put in perhaps the most devastating and significant match performance by an England bowler since Bob Willis annihilated the Aussies at Headingley in 1981 with his 12-for at The Wanderers; Simon Jones, despite bowling less than would be expected for a specialist seamer, managed figures any bowler would be more than happy with for a normal Test series; Ashley Giles, while having little influence on any of the last 4 Tests, unquestionably contributed on the one occasion in the series where the pitch offered something to him; and Andrew Flintoff's Test-match average continued to fall like an axe.
Likewise, with the bat Marcus Trescothick exceeded most expectations, and certainly past performances, by averaging over 44 and scoring 2 centuries in the series; Graham Thorpe looked below par most of the time (though he still managed an average of 35.87), something which in all honesty is hardly surprising given that coming into the series he'd averaged 59.04 in his previous 16 Tests; Michael Vaughan took a spot at number-four again but disappointed for the third series in a row - though he still managed to play a significant part in what turned-out to be the deciding victory; Geraint Jones' batting, while mustering 2 half-centuries, for the most part could only be described as brainless, especially for someone with so much ability; Mark Butcher and Robert Key similarly disappointed in the number-three position; but as for Andrew Strauss, what more can be said? Strauss exceeded his brief maybe three times over, making-up almost completely for the shortcomings in Butcher, Key, Vaughan and Jones.
At the same time, however, Australia's cricket followed a familiar pattern - since England finished their summer of fulfilment in 2004, Australia have played 12 Tests (1 severely disrupted by rain and drawn) and won 10; the only loss came by a pint-size margin. Most of the victories have been landslides where they have rarely been anything less than dominant. In all honesty, few in English circles seemed to be expecting such a continuation: the series in India was the epitomisation of damp-squib after the sensations of the two teams' series in Australia the previous winter; New Zealand, despite being hammered by England shortly before, were expected to provide the traditional Trans-Tasman grit home and away; and Pakistan were apparently a resurgent Test-match outfit going into their tour. That familiar Australian pre-eminence has perpetuated was not, quite, in the script.
The most significant revelation last summer might well have come not in the obvious steel imparted into the Test-match performances and the emergence of Test-match batsmen and bowlers of pedigree, but in the penultimate game of the season, the ODI at Edgbaston as The Champions Trophy came to life. While England's ODI side was not a strong outfit - and still isn't - the gains of that unexpected victory are impossible to underestimate. Gone were the cobwebs and psychological shackles of most of the 1990s - it was clear that England believed in themselves and were not intimidated by the name of the opposition. Half the battle, indeed, is won if that belief can be maintained into this July's First Test.
The other half of the battle, however, is one that's rather harder to win. Whatever way you look, Australia have more angles covered than England do. In Glenn McGrath, and to a lesser extent Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz, Australia have seamers against whom we have seen seemingly powerful batting-line-ups fall time and again, regardless of pitch conditions. In Shane Warne, Australia have at once a man who does three jobs: if the pitch is turning, the rest of the attack is barely necessary; if it's not, he either provides containment while the seamers chip away; or in the unlikely event they fail to deliver, he still offers a large threat, not significantly less than on a turning pitch.
However much batting skill England have, scoring large totals with consistency against this attack while it is firing on all cylinders is worryingly close to impossible. Perhaps England's only chance is that at least one, if not two, fail to deliver or miss Tests through injury. If Warne were to be the absentee, the door would perhaps be prised furthest open - Stuart MacGill would be the most likely recipient of the place, and MacGill has caused few problems to Test-standard sides for a long time. If a seamer were to go down, Brett Lee would almost certainly gain a spot - the time since he caused consistent problems is even longer than with MacGill. If both McGrath and Warne were to miss the entire series, we would perhaps be catapulted to something not far off a level playing-field. That, however, is an exceedingly unlikely occurrence and, indeed, would take a large amount of gloss off any series victory if it were to come to pass.
Then we have the other worries, for specific batsmen. In Jason Gillespie's career, he has bowled at Marcus Trescothick 20 times, and caused him to give a chance on 9 occasions. That is an alarming ratio, and despite Trescothick's largely unexpected success in South Africa, there is little or no evidence that anything has changed. If Gillespie bowls as he has in previous Ashes encounters we can expect to see Trescothick knocked-over cheaply quite often. Strauss' stunning start to his Test career has seen virtually nothing in the way of testing spin-bowling, and while no yawning weakness against the turning ball has been apparent in his 6-year First-Class career, it'd not be a massive shock to the system to see Warne conjuring-up the unplayable delivery just when it's needed on more than one occasion in the series. Vaughan might have carried most things before him in his only previous encounter with the Aussies but his form since that series has been little short of woeful, despite the presence of odd large scores (156, 56 and 105 in the same game, 140, 103 and 101* in the same Test and 82* and 54 in the same Test). While no-one can reasonably attach too much fault to Graham Thorpe's performance since his recall at the tail-end of 2003, the 35-and-counting approach to selection is already apparent and it is wholly predictable that with just a couple of poor innings the pressure on him will start to mount, and under that sort of scrutiny can he be expected to produce the match-turning innings everyone knows him to be capable of? Geraint Jones may have all the talent in the World, but one can only hope and pray that Duncan Fletcher has been tutoring him on the benefits of not aiming to score at a-run-a-ball in Test-matches sometime since February. Ian Bell's copybook technique and calm assurance at the crease bears definite resemblance to Michael Atherton and many have commented on that fact. One can only hope that, as a middle-order batsman, Bell escapes McGrath's new-ball Jaffas in a way 19-times Atherton never did. If he manages this, he has as good a chance as anyone of scoring runs.
So what of the Australian batting? In Damien Martyn and Simon Katich, Australia have at once two players who provide the middle-order with robustness which would be the envy of anyone. Both have come a long way from the spin-shy batsmen of their early days and are now equipped to deal with pretty much anything any bowler could hurl at them. Like any batsman, they are subject to form-slumps and that may be England's best chance of keeping them down in the series, short of preparing pitches akin to Trent Bridge 2003 every game. In the middle, in short, all angles are covered as in the bowling. However well England bowl and however well the pitches are prepared, expect to see Martyn and Katich scoring plenty in the series barring loss of form. Either side from these two middle-order rocks, however, things aren't quite as stable as they may seem.
A year ago, the notion that Matthew Hayden would be anything but odds-on favourite to top-score in this series would have seemed absurd. Since then, Kyle Mills, of all people, an otherwise utterly innocuous Kiwi seamer, has exposed a gaping hole in his technique which, while it never went away, did pass virtually without sight between 2001\02 and 2004\05. After Mills, Shoaib Akhtar took-up the challenge enthusiastically. One can only hope that Matthew Hoggard has been watching and is right now honing further his new-ball skills which worked so well on Graeme Smith in the middle of the South Africa series. Even more remarkably, a man for so long seemingly close to invincible against spin has had trouble with the turning ball more than once in 2004\05. Far from odds-on top-scorer, it's not unquestionable that Hayden's career might come to a similarly unexpected end as Michael Slater's did at Headingley 2001. But equally, if the pitch is flat and the ball isn't swinging, never count-out the chance of a Hayden battery. Aside from Hoggard, it's hard to see any of the England bowlers troubling him if he bats like he did in 2001\02, 2002\03 and 2003\04.
In Justin Langer, Australia have one of the more inconsistent batsmen ever to grace Test-cricket. Since he gained a regular place against Pakistan in 1998\99, his form has consisted of large bouts of merciless run-scoring and relatively lengthy barren spells. One thing that has never gone away is an uncertainty against the ball that turns, especially across him, and a slight vulnerability to the early inswinger. Langer's recent form has been quite stunning, and if precedent is followed he could be due a sticky patch. Hoggard is again the man most likely to cause the problems early on if he can get his inswinger going, though if he doesn't manage it it's always worth a shot getting Giles on early if the pitch is turning. If, though, as England have found-out at Adelaide 1998\99, The Oval 2001 and The MCG 2002\03, if you don't get him fairly early, watch-out.
At Headingley in 2001, Ricky Ponting was a man under intense pressure - his previous 10 Test-match innings had earnt him just 77 runs. However, as Mark Ramprakash failed to stand close enough to get his fingers under an early edge, Ponting's career entered a golden phase the like of which cricket has rarely seen. In his next 46 innings he averaged 81.97 and could seemingly do no wrong. He was the natural choice to take-over the captaincy from Stephen Waugh after leading the ODI side with barely a blemish for 2 years. Since then, the ride for Ponting the batsman hasn't been quite so smooth. Inevitably, the captaincy was blamed for affecting his form at first, though what is far more likely is the great-leveller effect cricket rarely fails to deliver. First Chaminda Vaas caused Ponting all sorts of problems in Sri Lanka, then in his next 7 Tests he rarely looked out-of-sorts but failed to land any big punches. More recently those problems have been banished, but lingering doubts about Ponting's ability against the turning ball have not gone away. While Ponting has faced Muttiah Muralitharan in 2 series and never had any difficulty, he has never looked convincing against Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble on turning pitches, about the only other time he has faced challenging spin-bowling in his career. Again, England's best chance is to attempt to bring Giles into the game as at Trent Bridge, Lord's and Edgbaston in the middle of last summer. Fail with that, and there's a substantial chance of another Ponting run-glut.
The most recent addition to Australia's batting-line-up has been Michael Clarke, and not surprisingly he is also much the weakest link in it. While his introductory form was sensational (in his first 5 Tests he averaged 67.62) his more recent returns have been distinctly mediocre (from his 6th Test onwards his average has been 16). Aside from a couple of innings, Clarke had similar difficulty on The Rose Bowl's capricious pitches for Hampshire in 2004 and severe doubts about his strokeplay are quite justifiable. Clarke's main rule of thumb at times has been: if you see a ball outside off-stump, drive it. As such, if the ball can be persuaded to swing Clarke in his current state is something close to a walking wicket, and unless he can very quickly learn a large chunk of discretion he will be the man England will want to see walking to the crease. While his early achievements did include runs in India, if Giles can unearth a turning pitch he will again be licking his lips at the prospect of persuading Clarke to come down the pitch regularly. Let us hope Geraint Jones' gloves are ready.
Last and certainly least forgettable in the Australian line-up is Adam Gilchrist, whose flamboyant and destructive style is now one of the more familiar sights in cricket. England have been on the receiving end more than once, and have mostly had only their own butter-fingers to blame (in 2001, Gilchrist scored 242 runs in the first 2 Tests, while giving 8 chances, only 2 of which were taken). Michael Atherton announced that Duncan Fletcher's batsman-chart for the series still contained a large question-mark at the end of the series next to Gilchrist's name. A more appropriate encryption would have been "take your catches". While it's unquestionable that Gilchrist takes a lot of risks and should be out far more often than he is, there's also no doubt that when it goes right - and it does so quite often enough - Gilchrist is perhaps the most damaging player going around. In his most recent 8 Tests, he has averaged 107. While this sort of form cannot go on forever, it is a frightening enough trait. The one and still only noticeable chink in Gilchrist's battering-ram is a very clear inability against the turning ball when new to the crease. As such, it once again falls to Giles to hope for some turning surfaces. Gilchrist's most barren period in his Test-match career - Test 48 to Test 60 (out of 68), in which he averaged a mere 28.63, came at a time when he was far more often than not facing spin early on. Again, this isn't a gurantee - if Gilchrist has his eye in when facing spin it's still possible for him to go on the blazing-trail. But if any other England bowlers fancy bowling at Gilchrist, they are taking their life in their hands. And hoping desperately that their fielders have theirs in good condition.
All in all, it's fairly apparent that whatever happens with the pitches, Australia are the winners if they go as we know they can. England's best chance, without doubt, is to make sure first and foremost that the pitches offer something to spin - past precedent shows that Giles is no use without turn in the pitch, but could well be a hugely potent weapon with it. Nor will turning pitches add much danger to what the batsmen face in return - Warne's threat is barely diminished whatever state the pitch is in. Pitches with offering to the seamers will play right into Australia's hands, as it's near impossible to expect all three of McGrath, Gillespie and Kasprowicz to waste the opportunities. Nor will it significantly increase England's power to fight back - Flintoff and Harmison both have a stock-length on the short side, and as such a familiar case of lots of play-and-misses and a 500+ total is very predictable given this eventuality. The one England bowler who will almost certainly have his potency increased on a seamer is Hoggard, and if it comes down to an ever-improving, hard-working act against three World-class operatives it's not difficult to predict which batting-line-up will emerge in the best state. Worst of all for England would be to prepare pitches offering nothing to any of their bowlers, which would all-but gurantee Australian boot-filling, and while it would give England's batsmen their best chance, you only need to watch McGrath bowling at home and in New Zealand in 2004\05, and Gillespie and Kasprowicz in India and Sri Lanka shortly before, to realise that matters would be far from safe. To give England's seamers their best chance, relatively slow, uneven pitches would bring in the perceived strengths of all of Flintoff, Harmison and Jones, and confine Hoggard's responsibilities to getting those vital new-ball breakthroughs. While McGrath, Gillespie and Kasprowicz would still be likely to outdo them, the gap is perhaps narrowest in this scenario.
One thing where there is little to divide the teams is in respect of catching. Ever since the neutral series against Pakistan just before The Ashes 2002\03, Australia's catching has been substandard. In Martyn, Clarke, McGrath, Kasprowicz and Gillespie Australia have five catchers who have proven below-average bordering on liability. There's nothing to write home about with MacGill, either. Katich, Langer, Ponting and Hayden aren't quite so bad, and Warne is as imperturbable as ever at first-slip. In short, though, you can bet that this time however many catches England put down all series, Australia will probably match it. In 2002\03, this was utterly irrelevant. This time, it might just make a slightly more noticeable difference. Unlike previous encounters, we can't rule-out Thorpe being put-down on 1 and getting a second chance to play that innings that decides the match.
Another thing that would be wisest to be dismissed totally is the notion that the 7 ODIs England and Australia will beyond all reasonable question play before The Ashes will provide any insight to the Tests. Australia have 4 batsmen available with ODI averages over 40, and 2 more between 35 and 40; England have Kevin Pietersen with an average of 139.50, 1 with an average between 35 and 40 and 2 others with significant averages over 30 (Collingwood has an average of 30.76, but it goes down to 26.25 when you remove games against Namibia, Holland, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe). Australia have 1 bowler with an economy-rate below 3.9, and 2 with recent economy-rates below 4 (Gillespie since 1999 has a rate of 3.97, Kasprowicz since his recall has a rate of 3.88); England's two best bowlers, Darren Gough and Andrew Flintoff, have rates in the 4.2-4.3 range, and an average rate of the other bowlers who have played since the start of 2004 is 5.23.
It's not at all inconceivable that Australia will win all 7 of the relevant ODIs of the summer (Bangladesh's presence is wholly pointless and their involvement predictable). The most important thing that England must achieve from the ODIs is the knowledge that they do not affect the Tests. As for the one-off 20-over game - the OEI, you might say - well, we'd do best to treat that as the fun bash-around it will undoubtedly be.
This summer's Ashes Series might well be the most interesting since 1997, or even since 1981. He who is prepared to bet it will have a different outcome to the previous 8, however, is a brave man.