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The battles that will decide the Ashes

Andrew Miller assesses the key head-to-heads in this summer's Ashes

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
By common consent, England have their best chance in a generation to reclaim the Ashes this summer. But for that to happen, certain key confrontations will have to go their way. Andrew Miller sums up the seven principal battles-within-the-battle that could make or break the summer

The Ashes ablaze: Michael Vaughan and Ricky Ponting will have key confrontations against Glenn McGrath and Steve Harmison © Getty Images

This is a contest that has never yet got past the first round. Trescothick's disappointing returns in his first two Ashes series have been epitomised by the vice-like grip that Gillespie has had on his strokeplay. Seven times in ten Tests, Gillespie has used his buzzsaw line and length to climb across Trescothick's bows and graze the edge of a limp defensive stroke. Caught behind four times, caught in the slips twice, and lbw once by way of a change. This summer, however, Trescothick has a chance for retribution. Gillespie is not the bowler he once was - he has lost a yard of pace and his confidence has been sapped during a dispiriting one-day series. And, as Trescothick demonstrated so amply against Bangladesh, he knows how to bully an opponent when he's down. Verdict - England win

England's golden boy has made the most serene entry into international cricket since David Gower in 1978, but the recent one-day series marked the first real challenge to his confidence since that heady Lord's debut in May 2004. And nobody did more to undermine his progress than Lee, for whom 2004, by contrast, was an annus horriblis. Axed from Tests since January of that year, all that is set to change after a series of turbo-charged performances. Strauss's uncomplicated technique has withstood most opponents so far, but Lee is fast, furious and fully focused, and has clean-bowled him twice this summer already, for a total of five runs. Verdict - Australia win

The one world-class strokemaker in England's top five versus Australia's greatest fast bowler of the modern era. This could be the absolute clincher of the summer. Two winters ago in Australia, the pair were inseparable - Vaughan's three sparkling hundreds couldn't disguise the fact that McGrath claimed his wicket in half his innings, four times with the ball, and once with a stunning catch-of-a-lifetime in the deep at Adelaide. But Vaughan is the living proof that England have nothing to fear this summer, not even from Australia's most fearsome predator. Verdict - honours even

Now this is going to be interesting. Pietersen is England's brash young egomaniac, Warne is Australia's wiliest winner of mindgames, and the pair profess to be bosom buddies. Something has got to give this summer. Warne has no doubt who will come out on top, and has already earmarked Pietersen as his 600th Test wicket; Pietersen, equally, is utterly cocksure, and claims to have seen everything that Warne has to offer during their time together in the Hampshire nets. This is going to be a formidable clash of egos, but ultimately, the duel could come down to that most humdrum of issues - technique. Pietersen loves to plant his front pad and swing across the line, which will suit Warne's wiles just fine. It'll take more than just mind over matter to cope with his full repertoire of trickery. Verdict - Australia win

If Gilchrist fails to fire, Australia will be vulnerable; if Flintoff is off-colour, on the other hand, England have no hope. That is the stark truth of this crucial match-up between the two genuine allrounders in the series. Batting-wise, Australia already have the edge. Gilchrist's brutal century in the final NatWest Challenge match was a flawless and timely performance that ensured that England's nerves will jangle when he walks out to bat at No. 7 in the Tests. Flintoff, by contrast, was edgy in the one-dayers, and at No. 6 in England's order, he is arguably one batting slot, if not two, too high for such a crunch contest. Flintoff's bowling, on the other hand, has improved beyond recognition in the past year. He has developed from a workhorse into a strike force, and whereas Gilchrist can only catch the chances that come his way, Flintoff now has the menace to make the incisions himself. Verdict - Australia win

One shot at Lord's said everything one needs to know about Ponting's intentions this summer. A stunning pick-up for six off Flintoff singled a return to his twinkle-toed best, after an early season spent toppling across his stumps and inviting lbw at every opportunity. Ponting possesses the best pull shot in the modern game, so length is going to be imperative when England take him on in the Tests. This is where Harmison comes in. He has the ability to extract steepling bounce where others just skid into the screws, and even Ponting will not be able to take his usual liberties - assuming the Harmison of April 2004 turns up at Lord's next week, of course, rather than the lost soul who traipsed round South Africa this winter. Verdict - Australia win

This was an utter mismatch on the last Ashes tour, but times they are a-changing. Back in 2002-03, Hoggard's stock delivery tended to arc onto Hayden's pads and disappear over midwicket with alarming regularity. In recent months, however, he has tightened his line, recognised that his role is "to sweep the shop floor", in Vaughan's memorable words, and become a force to be respected. In South Africa this winter, he dismissed one opening batsman in each of the first eight innings of the series, including that other left-handed former England nemesis, Graeme Smith, on four occasions. What is more, Hayden's stock has been slipping in recent months - since Australia's tour of India last October, he has averaged 20 runs below his career average of 53.46. With his stiff-limbed technique, the last thing he needs is to have to come looking for runs. Verdict - England win

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo