September is upon us, schools are going back, nights are drawing in, but the cricketing treats just keep on coming in this most delayed gratification of a summer schedule.
There was a time, not so long ago, when the prospect of this many white-ball games against Australia this deep into an English season would fill most of the home contingent with dread - the most damning example coming in Australia's 6-1 filleting of Andrew Strauss's sated side in 2009, although the same autumnal fate awaited England's Ashes winners in 2013 and 2015 too.
Right now, however, what would any of us rather be tuning into? Having waited so long for this season even to begin, and having doubted for longer still that Australia would actually show up for their share of the action, here we are, with the prospect of six more contests to round off the summer and give the impression, statistically speaking at least, that 2020 was actually a fairly standard season after all - blighted by English rain, obviously, but nothing else untoward, surely?
As Mark Wood put it in his typically effusive tones on Wednesday, and Eoin Morgan reiterated on Thursday, there's something special about an Anglo-Aussie clash, regardless of context. It's England's biggest rivalry, and the oldest, and the fact that Australia come in as the No.1-ranked side in T20Is merely adds to the two team's desires to, on the one hand defend that status, and on the other to knock them down a peg.
Australia arrive with a quietly formidable side, powered by a pair of quicks in Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins who would grace any team in the world, backed up by the established twin-spin pairing of Adam Zampa and Ashton Agar, and with Aaron Finch and David Warner leading off a batting line-up that will feature the unfettered talents of Glenn Maxwell for the first time in 2020, following his decision to take a break for his mental health last October.
It's an uncomplicated formula that has reaped rich rewards in the format - they've won four series in a row since the start of 2019, and Morgan intimated that Australia would begin this campaign as favourites given that his own side are still rather more pre-occupied with broadening their base than sharpening their first XI. It's unfortunate on several levels for Australia that this winter's T20 World Cup has been postponed. Going into that campaign on home soil, in ordinary circumstances, they would surely have been overwhelming favourites.
Then again, England have had the better of Australia in white-ball cricket for quite some time now, and while Aussies don't scare easily, they'll doubtless have one or two painful memories of their last few clashes in coloured clothing - the World Cup semi-final at Edgbaston, for starters, where England produced their most complete evisceration of a somewhat erratic campaign, and atoned for their group-stage loss at Lord's. And if that doesn't spook them, there's the memories of 481 for 6 and all that from the summer of 2018 - the apogee of England's 5-0 ODI thrashing with which they confirmed their readiness for the challenges ahead.
That said, England are far from the finished article in T20Is. That much is clear from this week alone, after they were outmuscled in the third and final contest by a fervent Pakistan, in the Powerplay with the ball, and in the death overs with the bat, where it is so hard to hit the ground running when wickets start to fall, and equally hard to get the match practice required to be the hero that the team needs as such moments. The timely return to form for Moeen Ali may be a huge boon on that front - the one thing that can be said for his recent abject run of batting form is that he has never died wondering in his brief stays in the middle. Sam Billings can also face an important audition in the coming days, as England are starting to expect a return on the investment that's been put in him in recent times.
Whatever transpires, if the weather stays remotely clear, the next fortnight of action promises a fitting send-off to a summer that has been like no other in living memory - and that more than anything is the message to absorb in the coming days. As recently as July, we were still hoping against hope that something, anything, could be salvaged from the English cricket season. Irrespective of the setbacks along the way, the fare on offer so far has been beyond anyone's realistic expectations. A visit by Australia makes for the perfect dessert.
England LWWWL (last five completed matches, most recent first)
Welcome back to the white-ball world, Jofra Archer. For myriad reasons - injury, rotation and bio-bubbles among them - the hero of England's World Cup Super Over has not been seen in coloured clothing since that extraordinary climax at Lord's last July. But here he is, back in the format that - for all his promise across every length of the game - he has truly made his own with his world-beating exploits on the T20 circuit for Sussex, Rajasthan, Hobart, Quetta and wherever else he may have roamed. And you sense that, after cutting a somewhat peripheral figure during an arduous Test leg of the summer, he'll rather relish getting back to delivering short, sharp shocks of his extraordinarily versatile skills. Raw pace, pinpoint yorkers, unfathomable slower balls. No time like the present to remind everyone why he was the point of difference in that run to glory last year.
And welcome back to England, David Warner, the pantomime villain de nos jours. As if the idea of England and Australia battling it out behind closed doors isn't strange enough already, imagine how eery the echoing environment of the Ageas Bowl will feel for Warner in particular, without a packed English crowd taunting him about sandpaper or Stuart Broad at every turn. On his last visit to England, he famously signed off with 95 runs at 9.50 in the Ashes, with Broad cramping his style time and time again with seven dismissals from that round-the-wicket line. But let's not forget he had been a different beast in the preceding World Cup, with three hundreds and 647 at 71.88 in Australia's run to the semi-finals. Somewhere between those two contrasting memories, he'll doubtless find equilibrium for the challenge ahead.
Plenty to ponder for England as they rebalance their line-up after the experimental outings against Pakistan. Jos Buttler is back, and in the absence of Jason Roy, he will be partnered at the top of the order by Jonny Bairstow, all of whom were described by Morgan as "three of our greatest white-ball players". That will leave an interesting decision at No.3, where Dawid Malan is the incumbent, having produced an important half-century in England's second T20I win over Pakistan, but where Tom Banton might feel he deserves an opportunity, following his full-throttle displays at the top of the order last week. Sam Billings should get another chance to prove his finishing credentials in the middle order, while Sam Curran might get a go to prove his versatility at No.7 after cutting his international teeth in the Test arena. With Archer back in harness, Mark Wood's absence of subtlety might be vying with Tom Curran's death-over wiles for the final bowling berth.
England (possible): 1 Jonny Bairstow, 2 Jos Buttler (wk), 3 Tom Banton / Dawid Malan, 4 Eoin Morgan (capt), 5 Moeen Ali, 6 Sam Billings, 7 Sam Curran, 8 Chris Jordan, 9 Jofra Archer, 10 Adil Rashid, 11 Mark Wood / Tom Curran
Despite his burgeoning reputation across formats, Marnus Labuschagne won't be inked in for a T20I debut just yet, with Steve Smith preferred as the tempo-setter at No.3, and Glenn Maxwell back as the man who makes things happen at No.4, in place of Matthew Wade. Mitchell Marsh and Alex Carey look set to be given the mid-innings roles at 5 and 6, while Kane Richardson is the likeliest candidate to complete the five-prong attack that has done as much as any unit to lift Australia to the No.1 ranking.
Australia (possible): 1 Aaron Finch (capt), 2 David Warner, 3 Steven Smith, 4 Glenn Maxwell, 5 Mitchell Marsh, 6 Alex Carey, 7 Ashton Agar, 8 Adam Zampa, 9 Pat Cummins, 10 Mitchell Starc, 11 Kane Richardson
Australia have been more than happy with the warm-up surfaces for their intra-squad contests at the Ageas Bowl, and Aaron Finch said he was expecting decent scores on a strip with good carry. A bright Friday evening is in prospect in Southampton, which augurs well for another entertaining clash.
Stats and trivia
- Australia have won nine of their 16 T20Is against England since their first encounter in 2005, including seven of their ten meetings this decade.
- However, England won their most recent engagement, at Edgbaston in 2018, where they posted 221 for 5, their highest T20I total against Australia.
- Finch needs 11 runs to become the second Australian after Warner to reach 2000 in T20Is.
- Australia have won just one of their 11 scheduled T20Is in England, but it did come at the Ageas Bowl in 2013, where Finch posted a remarkable 156 out of 248 for 6.
- Australia have lost eight of those games with two no-results - a run that includes five successive losses against non-English opposition, at the World T20 in 2009 and the neutral series against Pakistan the following year.
"For the first time this summer we're seeing a majority of our best team on the park [but] I don't think we have to go out and pick our best XI every series, because we can't put all our eggs in one basket. You need 16 or 17 players in the lead-in to World Cup selection that are all vying for a position in the best 15."
Eoin Morgan welcomes the return of England's big guns, but says building depth is every bit as important.
"The England-Australia rivalry is always huge, regardless of who you're playing in front of or where you're playing, I think you could play it in the street and it'd still be there. It's just a great rivalry."."
Aaron Finch looks forward to locking horns with England once more.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket