"Right. Let's be doing this. Is this mic on?"
Yes, it's back! After yet another intense bout of Ashes hype and build-up, lasting … ooh… a matter of hours, cricket's greatest rivalry is revved up and ready to take centre stage once again. The time for mind-games and trash talk is over (did it ever begin? ED) as England and Australia prepare to do battle for the 347th occasion in that eternal struggle, one that has so far spanned 141 years, 71 series, 15 venues and two hemispheres …
Okay, I admit it… it still feels a little bit weird, a little bit soon. At least there's been that fever-dream of an Ireland Test to help English cricket with the transition from World Cup euphoria to under-starters-orders tension, but this Ashes turnaround has been more abrupt than even those curious home-and-away rubbers in 2013-14 (and we all know how that worked out for the side that had been celebrating at the halfway mark…)
And yet … with the greatest respect to an Ireland team that serviced England's World Cup hangover like a 5am knee-drop from a Christmas-morning toddler, the contest in prospect at Edgbaston is the most viscerally real of deals. If it doesn't yet feel as though the Ashes are upon us once more, then the mere sight of those Baggy Green caps, going into a huddle after the toss has been won and lost tomorrow morning, will provide all the primordial triggers required to snap competitors and onlookers alike into the here and now.
Yes, this time it really is time to leave the World Cup behind … Stokes' heroics, Roy's shy, Buttler's grab-and-smash, those cavorting, ecstatic scenes of live-history-in-the-making at that most magnificent and hard-to-impress of venues. England tried to leave it all behind last week, but failed pretty miserably (in spite of Ireland's humbling final day). But this time, the return to a favoured stomping ground should facilitate that bid for a new beginning.
The Edgbaston factor cannot be discounted as England seek a flying start to this campaign, hard though Australia's captain, Tim Paine, tried to play it down on the eve of the game. With its feral, fancy-dress-clad crowds bearing down on the action from all corners, it is becoming as intimidating to England's opponents as the Gabba has long been to Australia's. There will be nerves, unquestionably, but not the fear of the lesser-known, as was the case in two of England's last three Ashes openers, when Cardiff was handed the honours for 2009 and 2015, and nearly caused the home side to fluff their lines twice.
But there is, of course, an added frisson to this contest, and it is one that will not be lost on the sandpaper-armed patrons of Edgbaston's Hollies Stand.
The fall-out from Australia's ball-tampering saga may be old hat in some quarters - and the abuse from the crowds certainly seemed to be water off a duck's back to David Warner during the World Cup. But a five-day Test match drills far deeper into a team's psyche than a 50-over fling - witness the Barmy Army's persecution of Mitchell Johnson in the 2010-11 series - and as Paine was at pains to mention, the Cape Town scandal exposed more than just the actions of Australia's errant three.
It went straight to the heart of Australia's win-at-all-costs culture - the same culture that sought to rub England's noses in it at the end of the 2017-18 Ashes with that four-fingers-and-clenched fist "4-0" podium in Sydney. Under Paine, the squad has gone out of its way to portray a new and more wholesome image, though Ben Stokes, for one, isn't convinced that that will last for long once the going gets tough in the heat of an Ashes battle. "It's weird, Aussies trying to be nice to you," he said.
But it is still possible to kill with kindness, to be smiling assassins. And with David Warner and Steve Smith fit and firing after impressive roles in Australia's run to the World Cup semi-finals, and Usman Khawaja back at No.3 after injury, their top order is unquestionably more settled than England's, who look set once again to rely on their wealth of middle-order allrounders to offset their perpetual instability.
Australia's bowling attack, too, has an air of menace rarely seen on these shores in the past couple of decades. They will hit the ground running after a bloodbath of a warm-up at the Ageas Bowl last week, in which the team management's desire to replicate English swinging conditions resulted in 17 wickets on the first day alone. Unlike India this time last year, they have not passed up the importance of acclimatisation at the start of an England Test series.
If they can survive the Edgbaston acid test, this series is set up for a classic. Though, in one final hark back to those halcyon days in sky blue earlier this month, that Edgbaston factor has already hit Australia where it hurts this summer, with their eight-wicket drubbing in the World Cup semi-final, a result so emphatic that the scoreboard was still showing Root and Eoin Morgan's not-out innings while Australia were warming up earlier in the week.
Australian teams of yesteryear seldom struggled to get up for the Ashes and the World Cup in quick succession - they won both at a canter in 1999, 2003 and 2007. England, by contrast, have tended to see the attainment of glory as an excuse to let standards slide (see 2005 and 2011 for examples). But if any venue will persuade them to harness the thrill of a new endeavour but savour the glories here and now, a five-day Edgbaston Ashes party could be just the tonic.
England WWLLW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
It's all on you, skipper. Joe Root has had a relatively quiet time in his last three England innings - all at Lord's, and none of them doing much to pull his sides out of a top-order funk. But as the captain of a home Ashes series, and knowing full well that his scalp will be prized more highly than any other in England's ranks, Root's bitten the bullet and pushed himself up into that troublesome top three. The logic, on the face of it, seems perverse. A simple 3-4 swap with Joe Denly does little to address concerns about the openers against the moving ball, whereas a promotion for Denly might have allowed Jason Roy a bit more of a chance to bed in at 3 without sacrificing Root's established strength at 4.
His senior team-mates have heard it all already throughout the World Cup, but for Cameron Bancroft - restored to the top of the order after quietly going about his business for Durham in the County Championship - his re-emergence into the glare of the international spotlight promises to be even more intense than that of Smith and Warner. He was, after all, the man caught yellow-handed with sandpaper down his underpants in Cape Town, but added to that is the fall-out from that bizarre Johnny Bairstow head-butting story in the last Ashes, the sort of stitch-up that England's players (and supporters) are unlikely to forget in a hurry. But more importantly, of course, Bancroft has the enviable honour of setting Australia's agenda against Anderson and Broad, armed with the new ball. He might have once feared his career was over for good. Now he's got one hell of a stage for a second coming.
The top-three whirligig aside, the story of England's selection is the identity of their seam attack. James Anderson has been passed fit following his calf tear four weeks ago, so slots into the XI ahead of Olly Stone, with Chris Woakes set to play only his second Test at Edgbaston - a venue where he boasts Tim Murtagh-at-Lord's-esque figures. Moeen Ali, another Birmingham native, will play as the solitary spinner - no room for Lord's batting hero Jack Leach this time - while England's middle order welcomes back the power couple, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes. Sam Curran, whose runs against Ireland were also vital in tipping the balance in that crazy contest, reverts to bench-warming once again.
England: 1 Jason Roy, 2 Rory Burns, 3 Joe Root (capt), 4 Joe Denly, 5 Jos Buttler, 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 8 Moeen Ali, 9 Chris Woakes, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 James Anderson
Extraordinary as it may seem to anyone who watched him in awe during the World Cup, Mitchell Starc seems destined to be overlooked as Australia face up to the flip-side of having such a wealth of fast-bowling options - the inevitability that someone is going to be bitterly disappointed. James Pattinson is guaranteed his first Ashes outing since 2013 after hugely impressive displays for Nottinghamshire and in Australia warm-ups, and with Pat Cummins also inked in, the final seam berth will be between Josh Hazlewood and the ageless Peter Siddle, another whose county form for Essex has encouraged the selectors that he will nail an English length from the get-go. In the batting stakes, Bancroft's 93 not out in that frenzied warm-up at the Ageas Bowl should earn him a shot at post-sandpaper redemption, while Khawaja is back at 3 after recovering from a hamstring strain. Travis Head is the incumbent at No.5, though Mitchell Marsh may yet feature to provide a fourth-seamer option.
Australia (possible): 1 David Warner, 2 Cameron Bancroft, 3 Usman Khawaja, 4 Steve Smith, 5 Travis Head/Mitchell Marsh, 6 Matthew Wade, 7 Tim Paine (capt & wk), 8 Pat Cummins, 9 James Pattinson, 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Peter Siddle/Josh Hazlewood.
Pitch and conditions
A belter of a pitch is usually in prospect at Edgbaston, though the heavy rain that forced the players to train indoors on Tuesday may yet be a factor in the final preparation. Either way, it currently looks brown and true - none of the unnerving live grass that proved such a factor at Lord's. England, it seems, are placing their faith in their special batch of thick-seamed, heavy-lacquered Dukes balls, rather than the surfaces.
Edgbaston is sold out for the first three days, with a few hundred tickets still available for day four. The weather forecast is not great, but it should at least be pretty dry (if cool) for the first two days.
Stats that matter
England have an impressive recent record against Australia at Edgbaston, where they have been unbeaten in all forms of the game since the 2001 Ashes.
Their record against all-comers is every bit as good, with 11 wins in a row since a T20I in 2014, and they are unbeaten in Tests at the venue since 2008.
This will be the first Ashes series in history to begin in the month of August. Since 2001 England's home Ashes had regularly begun in July. The fifth Test is scheduled to finish on September 16, the latest yet.
Australia have lost each of their last four Ashes campaigns in England, their worst run since the 1890s.
The first Test also marks the start of the long-awaited World Test Championship. Teams will collect points over a two-year cycle, ahead of a final in June 2021. There are 120 points up for grabs per series, regardless of length, so 24 per Test in this instance.
"I can't control how other people are going to react within the ground, and how the crowd go about that. I think the one-dayers gave a small idea of what it probably will be like for them. But we're not going to get involved in that as a team, we want to play good cricket, and make it a really memorable series."
Joe Root, England's captain, expects a lively reception for Australia from the Edgbaston crowd.
"If we can be really clear, come out and execute well, it doesn't matter if we play at Edgbaston or on the moon, we think our best cricket is good enough."
Australia captain Tim Paine isn't fazed by the venue