It seems only yesterday that Michael Vaughan was lifting that little urn in front of the packed Oval crowd on a gloomy Monday evening in the middle of September; but now, four years on and a lot has changed on the eve of the Ashes 09.
Only seven of the 25 players who featured in 2005 will be walking onto the pitch in Cardiff tomorrow morning, but in the place of the other 18 come a mixture of brawn, agility and talent which will only help to provide a suitably fiery and exhilarating series. Of the batsman, we can only look forward to watching the likes of Bopara and Hughes bat, young and talented on Ashes debut; both play with a fluid and aggressive nature the English crowds will love to watch. Katich and Cook will provide a steady contrast, less stylish and destructive, both will grind out runs and look to see off the new ball before forming a base for a big score.
England’s bowling will certainly outpunch the Aussies’ on paper, with Anderson, Broad and Sidebottom all in form and hungry for wickets with Freddie Flintoff fit for now and perhaps the most valuable asset the hosts have. In contrast, the Australian line-up is a tad undercooked – all chased leather in the warm up game against the England Lions without much success. Brett Lee looked by far the most dangerous of the seamers, but will miss at least the first match due to his side-strain. Peter Siddle and Stuart Clark both appear relaxed and un-hassled by the ‘05 baggage, but won’t pose anywhere near as much threat as the likes of Lee and McGrath have done in previous series. Mitchell Johnson however might be a completely different story – perhaps the best bowler in the world in 2008, he will threaten both the right and left handers with his pace and bounce; as well as a belligerent batting style to come in at eight or nine. The backroom staff will have to make sure he isn’t over bowled if Hauritz doesn’t play.
On that note, perhaps the most talked about area of the line-ups is the spin options – England appear to be set for all circumstances with off-spin from Graeme Swann, slow left arm from Monty Panesar and leg-spin from the young Adil Rashid. Punters speculate that England will play two of the three at Cardiff as spin is expected from day one, a ploy further backed-up by much talked about fact that Australia have just one out-and-out spinner in Nathan Hauritz. Wicket-less on the tour so far, he will do more of defensive job if he plays, but even that is not a certainty with three of the Aussie batsman offering their hands in part-time bowling. Michael Clarke will no doubt bowl his useful left arm offies, Simon Katich might prove the undoing of a batsman or two with his leg spin, whilst Marcus North has had experience bowling at English batsman at no less than five counties in the last seven years. Whilst this might prove a temporary patch over a troublesome area for the visitors, there is little worry in the English camp over the spin bowling they will face over the next two months.
Whatever the mix, there is no doubt that the tourists will miss the experience of Gilchrist, Warne, McGrath, Hayden and Langer, with many commentators stating publicly that this is the worst Aussie side to tour England in 32 years. Perhaps a little harsh with the talent in the squad, but England must be buoyed by their team in comparison to the side they will face in 24 hours time.
The hosts will need to get off to a good start at Cardiff. They batted first in all five Tests in 05, amassing over 350 in all-but-one of them. They will need their big name players such as Pietersen, Strauss and, of course, Flintoff, to come to the proverbial party. It appears a bit of an Ashes axiom to say so, but it might very well prove the difference between the sides. It will be hard, perhaps impossible, to recreate the excitement and tension of the series four years ago; but with the young and energetic who have replaced the old and experienced, comes a great deal of desire to give us journalists something extraordinary to write about.