England to win (unless Australia do)
No one could possibly accuse this summer's Ashes series of suffering from an insufficiency of previews. The action finally begins this morning, after what has sometimes been portrayed in parts of the cricketing media as essentially two and a half years of warm-up matches for each side, since England and Australia respectively cavorted and sloped away from the SCG at the end of their previous showdown.
Since then, England have won five, drawn two and lost two of their nine Test series, whilst the Australians have won four, drawn two and lost two. In that time, both sides have lost to South Africa and comfortably beaten India and Sri Lanka at home. Both have lost four consecutive Tests in Asia, but both have also won a series on the subcontinent. Both have beaten West Indies 2-0, and had a drawn series with New Zealand. England have won two and lost one of their previous three home series, Australia have won two and lost one of their previous three away series.
"Statistics, schmatistics," as my great uncle Jerezekiel Schmyulenstein would have said, probably whilst being carted off for questioning by income tax officials, had he actually existed. England are overwhelming favourites. Unfortunately for the baggy greens, that one away series loss was their most recent Test jaunt, a numbingly inept 4-0 whitewash in India, where, a few months previously, England had triumphed.
It should be added that, whilst both of those series were ostensibly played in India, against India, and featured several of the same Indian players, the two Indias in those series might as well have been completely different teams. England faced the smouldering embers of a passing era, Australia encountered the birth of a bubbly if belatedly midwifed new team.
However, added to the absolute obliteration Andrew Strauss' team meted out to the crumbling wreckage of Pontingian Australia in the 2010-11 series - three clumpings by an innings in four Tests, as many innings wins as England had registered in Australia in 17 previous series since the Second World War - the upshot is a level of English public and media confidence seldom seen on these shores. Arguably we are at a record level of national bullishness since before the Romans invaded and failed to be distracted by our crafty trick of painting ourselves blue to make them think it was even colder in Britain than it actually was.
For English cricket fans of my generation, such confidence is extremely disconcerting. Through the late 1980s and 1990s, the basic expectation was of failure. That expectation was often met. Often with something to spare. Especially against Australia. So to hear bold predictions of back-to-back whitewashes creates an uneasy feeling, as if we are watching a scene in a Jaws-style movie, in which everyone is playing by the seaside in an obviously excessively carefree manner, unaware that, just yards away in the sea, there is a giant wooden shark lurking, containing Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist and the Waugh brothers, ready to burst out in the dead of night and start playing an all-conquering game of beach cricket.
In the end, of course, Jaws-style movies usually end up with everyone sitting down to a tasty plate of shark sushi, having a good laugh about the look on that guy's face when his leg was bitten off (I have not seen a Jaws-style film since I was nine years old; I may be a bit out of the loop). Similarly, I think England will win this series. But I think, and hope, that it will be much closer than the majority of pundits, and the two series results in India, suggest.
Here, then, are ten factors that will decide the ultimate destination of the hypothetical urn:
1. Momentum is critically important
England salvaged first-Test draws with second-innings rearguards in Cardiff in 2009 and in Brisbane in 2010-11. They conceded vast leads but escaped with confidence burgeoning and with the series still level. They proceeded to surf the wave of momentum and hammer the Australians in the second Tests of both of those series, paving the way for the series victories.
In their era of dominance, Australia would usually saddle up the momentum donkey early in the series, somersault onto it, whack its backside with a whip made from the entwined moustaches of Dennis Lillee, Merv Hughes and Fred "The Demon" Spofforth, and ride that donkey like a Kawasaki 350 until the series was won.
2. Momentum is irrelevant
In 2010-11, after England's crushing Adelaide victory, they went to Perth positively dripping with momentum, and were promptly clouted. The Australians left the WACA proudly clutching a 1-1 scoreline and enough momentum to catapult David Boon into orbit. Then, on the first day in Melbourne, they were bowled out for 98, in one of the most unremittingly incompetent displays of batting in baggy green history.
At Headingley in 2009, Australia pounded England into a fine pulp to square the series and leave themselves needing just a draw at The Oval to retain the Ashes. They left out their spinner on a turning pitch, succumbed to a suddenly rampant Stuart Broad, and lost by lots with a long time to spare. "Momentum, schmomentum," as uncle Jerezekiel would definitely have said, after riding his unicycle into a pond at high velocity, and sinking immediately.
Furthermore, whilst Australia might have ridden the momentum donkey in those series from 1989 to 2003, that was because they were, collectively, an outstanding jockey. They thrashed England because they were much better at cricket. Which often creates its own momentum. Unsurprisingly.
3. A settled team is vital
England in 2005 used the same XI for the first four Tests. They made one injury-enforced change for the final match. The individuals knew their functions within the team, and their cohesion carried them to arguably the greatest victory in English cricket history.
England used 29 players in the 1989 Ashes, and 24 in 1993. They were absolutely heffalumped in both series, by Australian teams that used, respectively, 12 and 13 players. Both sides have indulged in selectorial tinkering in the build-up to this summer's series. The core of England's side has remained unchanged for years, however, which could give them a vital advantage.
History suggests that the selectors must now be prepared to back their chosen men, and give them the chance to prove themselves.
4. New players called up later in the series could have a series-changing impact
Modern Test series are scheduled with little thought for ensuring that bowlers can remain fit and fresh for each match. And by little thought, I of course mean: no thought. The 2010-11 series was level at 1-1 when the unproven Bresnan supplanted the wayward Finn; Broad, who had bowled England to victory in 2009, had already been injured, and replaced by the untested Tremlett. Between them the two replacements took 20 wickets at 23 in England's victories in Melbourne and Sydney (including the first three wickets in each Test, establishing English control).
Richard Ellison played a decisive role in 1985 after being called up for the fifth and sixth Tests, Gladstone Small took a pivotal five-for after being selected for the fourth Test in 1986-87. Craig McDermott took 19 wickets in the final two Tests in 1990-91, recalled after a two-year absence. Paul Reiffel took 19 wickets in the last three Tests in 1993, after displacing the ineffective Brendon Julian.
Batsmen have also made late but definitive entrances to Ashes series - notably, Jonathan Trott at The Oval four years ago, with an useful and unluckily terminated 41, followed by a fluent, domination-securing 119. Mark Waugh, Greg Blewett, Graham Thorpe and Greg Chappell have all made debut hundreds after being called up during an Ashes series.
History suggests that the selectors must be prepared to turn their back on their chosen men, should the need arise, and give others the chance to prove themselves.
5. The first Test is massively important
Australian Ashes dominance either side of the turn of the millennium was founded on pummelling England from the first ball. In six of their eight consecutive series wins, they were 2-0 up after two Tests; and they would have been in 1998-99, had rain not rescued England in Brisbane. England know that a first Test win could fatally rupture Australia's fragile, India-tenderised confidence. Australia know that if they can surprise England at Trent Bridge, as South Africa did in the first Test last summer, they will have a fighting chance.
6. The first Test is irrelevant
Only three times in the last eight Ashes series has the ultimate winner of the series won the first Test. England's three series victories this millennium have all come despite not winning the opening match of the series - they lost the first Test in 2005, and drew in 2009 and 2010-11. In fact, of England's 13 Ashes series wins since the Second World War, they have won the first Test on only four occasions (with six draws, and three losses).
The second Test is far more important. Eleven of the last 12 Ashes series have been won by the team that has won the second Test. The exception was the drawn Lord's Test in 1997, when rain wiped out almost the whole of the first two days, before McGrath skittled England for 77. After England's euphoric Edgbaston triumph, Australia's decade-long psychological stranglehold had been re-established, and the momentum (see above) had irreversibly shifted. Australia won the next three Tests.
7. The battle between England's and Australia's seam attacks will decide the series
England's pacers have the experience, the proven track records, and the home advantage. Anderson has been consistently effective this decade, barring England's Oval disaster last summer, but Broad has been inconsistent, Bresnan has faded, and Finn has made only sporadic progress. They might all be on top form, but they might not. In which case, Australia's blend of raw potential and hardened pros could match or even surpass them.
8. The battle between England's and Australia's seam attacks is non-existent
They will be bowling at different times, and at different sets of batsmen. It is quite possible that one side's bowlers will bowl better than the other's, and still end up (a) losing and (b) with inferior bowling figures. Besides, if the weather stays hot and dry, Swann, who has been useful rather than decisive in his two previous Ashes, and Lyon, who has a decent Test record, particularly for someone with so little first-class experience, could be the most important bowlers in the series.
9. The series could come down to which team can keep its cool under pressure
England's sensational triumph in the 2005 series was thanks to two nail-devouringly tense wins and a final-afternoon counter-attack in the last Test when the series and the destiny of Vaughan's England teetered in the balance. When the heat was cranked up, England not only stayed in the kitchen, they managed to whip up a perfect victory soufflé.
10. No, it probably won't
Since that staggering 2005 series, which was a contest as good as sport can produce, there have been two close finishes in 15 Tests - the Cardiff draw four years ago, and England's fifth-day megachoke in Adelaide in 2006-07. Otherwise, one side has tended to thrash the other - of the 12 positive results, five have been by an innings, five by at least 100 runs, one by ten wickets, and one (that Adelaide match) by six wickets.
In the last two series, only once has the first-innings lead or deficit been less than 100 runs - Australia led by 83 on their way to victory in Perth in 2010-11 - and the average first-innings gap has been 253. Most of the matches have been decisively shaped by the first two days. Some by the first over (Adelaide, 2010-11). Some by the first ball (Harmison v the Laws of Physics, Brisbane, 2006-07).
OFFICIAL CONFECTIONERY STALL SERIES RESULT PREVIEW: England 2 Australia 1. Unless the results turn out differently.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writer