Can England regain the Ashes this time?
I fear not. And I say that with a genuinely heavy heart that's finally been ruled by my head after weeks of rumination.
I am very fond of most of the England players, some of whom I?m glad to call friends, having known them from their first tentative steps in international cricket.
Success for England would do wonders for the game in this country, especially if the architects were dynamic players like Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison and Simon Jones.
The England guys are fed up with us throwing questions at them about Australia. To be fair to them, we?ve been banging on about it since the West Indies series ended last September, while England have got on with winning five Test series in a row.
But they know that from today ? when they hold court to the media at a swish London hotel ? the talking will soon cease and they?ll have to do it out in the middle.
I?m sure they?ll poo-poo the incredible statistic that England have beaten Australia in a Lord?s Test just once since 1896, but the Aussies won?t. They?re keener on cricket history than the England players and who can blame them? They?ve won the last two Ashes series by 4-1 margins and it?ll be a surprise if they go to The Oval for the fifth and final Test in mid-September, with all still to play for.
That is being realistic, not defeatist. Yet this England side under Michael Vaughan?s relaxed leadership are clearly determined not to bend the knee psychologically, as has been the case in the past.
Half of them have never played a Test against Australia, so they?re not tainted by the fear of recurring failure. Various incidents in the interminable one-day series indicated that England are fully prepared to mix it with the Australians.
But they have to be at their best every session of every day over a period of six-and-a-half weeks to regain the Ashes.
The first three England batsmen have to give the hosts sound starts; Shane Warne must be negated while runs come freely at the other end; Flintoff must dominate with bat and ball; and Harmison has to take at least 25 wickets in the five Tests. And the fielding has to be razor-sharp.
Simply, Australia have the class and killer instinct to take the game away from you in just one session.
They have four batsmen who average more than 50 in Test cricket, the greatest wicketkeeper/batsman ever in Adam Gilchrist (15 Test hundreds!), and two of their champion bowlers determined to bow out of Tests in England on a high. Glenn McGrath and Warne may have slipped a little down the other side, but they still know enough about how to bowl out the Poms.
And I?m amazed that few pundits have mentioned Stuart MacGill. Because the ECB have been so determined to give the Aussies an easy ride in the run-in to Lord?s, with pitiful county opposition, stacks of one-day games and no Tests early in June when the ball is still seaming and swinging around, the tourists have coasted.
They don?t have to play a Headingley Test, where overhead conditions make the game a lottery, while the ball will turn at Old Trafford and The Oval.
MacGill is a conventional legspinner who bowls dross interspersed with unplayable deliveries, but he has a faster strike-rate of wickets in Tests than Warne. Don?t bet against those two enjoying themselves in tandem in at least two of the five Tests.
The Aussies were under-cooked in the first month after playing no cricket since March, apart from those obligingly given county contracts to play over here in April and May. We do make it easy for them, don?t we?
But now, after acclimatisation and time out in the middle, the likes of Ricky Ponting, Gilchrist and Jason Gillespie are looking ominously sound again. And if the assured Michael Hussey can?t get into the Test squad, then Brad Hodge and Michael Clarke must be very good batsmen indeed.
I?m aware that so many England players and supporters get hacked off with the Aussies being built up, but it would be stupid to avoid the facts and the hunger they show in training and in the field. Most of them may be over 30, but there are no comfort zones where they?ve learned their cricket.
The selection of Kevin Pietersen in the England ranks ahead of Graham Thorpe makes sense if you want to counter-attack, rather than be reassured by the sight of a veteran, nuggety left-hander coming in at 30 for three. England?s best chance is to get after Warne ? and they do play spin better in the coaching era of Duncan Fletcher and don?t let McGrath settle. Quite how they handle the sheer pace of Brett Lee is another challenge.
It should be marvellous, but let?s settle for enjoying high-class international cricket, relishing great players, irrespective of the side they represent. Otherwise, I fear that England supporters might be disillusioned by the time we get to the Oval.
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TV delay dims the spotlight on Ashes
It?s almost upon us ? the longest hors d?oeuvre since Gordon Ramsey first flexed his gastronomic muscles.
The England and Wales Cricket Board deserve all the contempt that?s come their way for allowing the start of the Ashes contest to be delayed so long in the ruthless quest for money, forcing endless one-day internationals on the public when all they want is the start of a great international battle.
Not since 1896 has a Lord?s Test against Australia started so late in the season, and that by just one hour, with the 11.30am start replaced by the 10.30 start this Thursday, to accommodate television.
Ah, television. It?s entirely due to satellite television that the Ashes games have started so late because Sky wanted all their exclusive one-day internationals out of the way before the football season started.
Or at least the phoney war before the football season starts, as we grapple with strikers learning their trade while wondering if they should accept a #20 million offer to go elsewhere, along with medical bulletins about highly-prized groin strains.
So we come to the Saturday of the third Test, at Old Trafford, with ? just possibly ? the series all-square. That coincides with the start of the Premiership season, and the ECB?s TV partners for the foreseeable future will then switch their attentions to football, as one of the great sporting institutions, lasting 128 years, tries to corner attention from the media.
This Ashes series deserves more. It should occupy the nation?s interest, rather than being sandwiched between meaningless one-dayers, the Twenty20 Cup tournament and the resumption of footie.
I just hope that from this Thursday onwards, both teams will underline what a fascinating sport five-day Test cricket is.
Not that Australia play too many five-day Tests these days. They have raised the bar in terms of fast scoring and the ability to bowl sides out quickly.
That?s why they?ve been a great unit for the past decade. We?ve had a few days off in recent Ashes battles and not due to England?s assets.
Monty's revival is cause for pleasure
It would take a particularly flinty heart not to be delighted at Colin Montgomerie?s renaissance as a golfer after three doleful years in the wilderness.
It was no shame to finish second to one of the great golfers, Tiger Woods, at The Open on Sunday and who could blame Montgomerie for talking up his chances of at last landing his first major at the venerable age of 42?
There are few more articulate sportsmen in Britain than the Scot, when all the ducks are in order and he is at one with the world. That is why the press tolerate his foibles and irrational outbursts, because he gives a lot back.
Apparently his new girlfriend couldn?t believe all the stories about Montgomerie?s daft strops on the golf course, so she accompanied him to St Andrews.
Apart from the occasional spat he behaved himself, so maybe true love and some serenity will at last see payback time for this hugely talented golfer and interesting man.
He really has been treated appallingly by so many jerks while playing in the United States.
His wonderful Ryder Cup record would mark him out as a special player in anyone?s book but try telling that to those who stalked him over there as he tried to make it on the US Tour.
One pathetic specimen baited him mercilessly one day, calling out his name as he was on the downswing, trying to goad him. Now Montgomerie has never been the most svelte of sportsmen and there have been times when some serious work on the weights might have toned him up in the chest area. But was that any justification for the comment hurled at him by the yob who finally got Montgomerie?s attention? The barb was cruel and heartless ? ?nice tits, Monty!?
That makes Monty?s success in the Ryder Cup that much sweeter and he can console himself in the knowledge that Phil Mickleson took long enough to land a major in his forties.
But for now, it?s Woods and the rest are nowhere.
Like Roger Federer in tennis, if Woods plays well, then he wins. He has ten majors to his credit and he has led in each one going into the final round. Woods appears to have nerves like tungsten steel, with a sense of his own place in golfing history. A round of 66 or 67 just seems par for him, as his talent flourishes alongside growing experience.
It was with a nice sense of symmetry that Woods bumped into Jack Nicklaus in the press tent on Friday as the great man was finally taking his leave of the public relations responsibilities he had handled with such aplomb on that emotional final day as a competitive golfer. The embrace was warm and genuine and there was a definite feeling that the torch of greatness had been handed on.
A great sport, golf, played in the main by professionals with an awareness of what is expected of them. And their eloquence and generous dispositions are most welcome in an age of brashness and posturing.
But could golf please divest itself of those idiots who shout ?Ged inda hole!? when someone has teed off about 475 yards away? Why do they shout such rubbish? Is it to be heard on television, or to be noticed by the spectators, or even to court a glance from the player on the tee? Or is it because the moron is American? The Royal and Ancient seems to be able to rein in behaviour that is inappropriate, so why are these exhibitionists tolerated?