England's chance to strut some stuff
It was not so long ago that an eminent former Australian captain replied to my question about the future of the Ashes with a sideways glance and a killer comment: "Not good, England won't win 'em back in my lifetime."
Ridiculous as that sounds now, back then - Christmas 2003, I think - it was nuts to argue the point. For a decade, the gulf between the teams was extreme and most of the matches would have been a bore but for the brilliance in the Australian camp.
Five players - Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath; Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden - might have been included in any Australian team of any era and maybe in a composite too. The other six were hardly muggins. England had developed a crushing inferiority complex and made bad decisions because of it. The culture of fear spread from boardroom to dressing room and the proposed solutions to the great depression came in the form of mirroring all things Australian.
It was therefore a surprise to read recently that Graeme Hick, who emigrated to Queensland a year or two ago, was helping to develop Australian batsmen. He, Hicky, the Zimbabwean, so often the object of Australian mirth! There is something faintly satisfying about this neon sign that says the wheel has turned full circle.
And that, of course, is what happens. The wheel of sport turns. Barcelona are losing football matches for the first time since Lionel Messi turned up. Tiger Woods and Roger Federer surrender major tournaments in a way that was inconceivable a decade ago. It is the circle of life and it is why the Ashes series before us is no given. If Kevin Pietersen and Graeme Swann are fully fit come July 18, England are firm favourites. If not, it is closer to even money.
England's journey to retaining the urn begins today at Lord's. These two Test matches against New Zealand really matter. They offer the chance to strut some stuff. Think back eight years - yes, it is that long - to the golden summer of 2005 and remember how it all began. With a ruthless beating of Bangladesh, that's how. Those were two Tests against helpless fellows so far from their comfort zone they might as well have been playing hockey, ice hockey. Or put another way, if the bouts had taken place in a ring, the ref would have stopped them. It was like the 1980s when the counties played Oxford and Cambridge, when the batsmen took the mickey and bowlers took career-bests. Think also of 2009, the last Ashes win at home and the thumping of West Indies that preceded it.
The exaggerated point is that nothing beats match practice and the confidence that flows from success. New Zealand have started the English summer obligingly before. Not so lamely as Bangladesh, of course, and not the New Zealand teams with Hadlee, Smith and Crowe, to name but three. But they were a soft touch in 2004 and 2008. Those Black Cap givens of game batting, smart seam bowling, and steady spin - seemed to disappear in the chill winds of May. England won five of those six Tests and four of them very comfortably.
But England's recent tour to New Zealand has complicated things. Complacency must have played a part in England's indifference, as did the loss of Swann and, latterly, Pietersen. The miracle of Mumbai last November was Pietersen's doing. Hammered in Ahmedabad and two down pretty quickly in the first innings of the second Test, England teetered on the edge of an Indian cliff. Within a couple of hours the maverick had changed the course of history. England could never have won the series without that incredible innings. These exceptional players unlock the mind, which allows the others to muscle their way through the door and finish the job.
After that staggering turnaround and the resulting series win, there was no way New Zealand could beat England, but they nearly did - no Swann to lift the spirit, only Matt Prior to save the day. It is right to call Prior the heartbeat of the team. His story is one to set before all talented young cricketers. These three, along with James Anderson, are the game changers. Ian Bell and Stuart Broad have it in them but their form is like the wind, threatening one minute, no more than a flutter the next.
Now England's job is to put New Zealand back in the box. Not so easy given the interesting dynamic at the heart of the Kiwi camp. The relationship between Brendon McCullum and Ross Taylor appears unhappy. Perhaps not Tiger and Sergio Garcia, but strained for sure. Many of the best teams have issues in-house. The Middlesex dressing room of the early '80s was full of spats, and little love was lost among the Aussies referred to at the top of this page. Such an edge takes itself onto the field. McCullum's usually enigmatic cricket is better with a point to prove. The team responds to his clarity, even if the emotional allegiance is divided.
The challenge for McCullum is to get Taylor feeling the same way, rather than moping. Yes, he got a raw deal but now that he has chosen to play on, he must do so with more gumption. And he must play the ball back from whence it came, a skill he seems to have lost during this period of distraction.
Others have responded well to their new captain. Hamish Rutherford is a less intense character than his father Ken, and one who appears to enjoy his cricket rather more. He stands nice and still, strikes the ball naturally, and retains a healthy appetite for runs. He's a right handful if he gets in. Peter Fulton has been a revelation. His feet move more slowly than his mind, a mind that has broken away from its previous fear of failure. If the ball moves around, Fulton will need greater agility. If not, he must be dug out.
There are the hearties - Kane Williamson and Brian Watling; the heavies - Trent Boult, Doug Bracewell and Tim Southee (who remains the youngest swinger in town and has the happy knack of winning a session or two in most series he plays). These blokes are no pushovers. But they are not as good a cricket team as England. It really is as simple as that. England must be at their ruthless best, the sort of best that Pietersen inspired them to be in India.
It is a challenge for Alastair Cook as much as anyone. The captain admitted to mistakes in New Zealand. He may have been surprised to see how quickly patterns can change, though Pietersen's Mumbai innings gave due warning. Cook has become a remarkable batsman but to be so he has only himself to consider and numbers to achieve. The wider the brief, the more flexible he will need to become. You can almost sense him licking his lips at the prospect of it all.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK