The Ashes start today. I can tell because every pub in London has a poster for Sky Sports in the toilet.

This is the first Ashes series since 2005 (note to editor: I thought there was one in 06/07, but I can find no mention of it in the UK media) and the English seem very excited by it. They think they can win. Really. And they can. Maybe. They all want to know how Ponting can handle a team without McGrath and Warne around; apparently the last two and a half years have simply not happened.

The English fans are amazingly confident, more so than they have been since the 80s. I am regularly told, “good luck, you’re going to need it”, even though I’m not actually playing. Some believe Freddie Flintoff will inspire them one last time. Others see Graeme Swann, the purveyor of the best chin in the game, spinning England to victory. There is also talk of James Anderson swinging the ball too far, that Phillip Hughes can’t play the short ball, KP making a gob full of runs, Lee’s injury ruining Australia’s chance of victory and Hauritz selection as a sure sign of the decline of Modern Civilisation. Very few people think Alastair Cook’s dogged determination will win it, which is unfair.

The press has gone Ashes crazy with talk of ghosts from 2005 (I assume they say ghosts of 2005 because virtually no one from that series is playing). They were desperate for the ’05 winners to make it out on the field. Simon Jones’ knee was updated on day-by-day until it was quite obvious that he wouldn’t play. Freddie Flintoff’s knee was updated on second-by-second and that worked out much better. The Guardian tried valiantly to get Michael Vaughan back into the team, even though the selectors, and Vaughan himself, knew it was over. The most over used press statement is, “This is the best time to play Australia”. It isn’t, that was October to December as the remains of the Empire fell into the sea.

Things that aren’t mentioned much in the press over here:

  • Mitchell Johnson.
  • England losing to the West Indies.
  • Australia beating South Africa.
  • Bryce McGain.

Cardiff has been a contentious host for the first Test. Last year the drainage was so bad that fans sat in the sunshine while a One Day International was called off. This year the groundsman was reported for making a sub standard pitch (it spun sideways) early in the County season. Plus the none too subtle accusations that the Welsh bought this Test and that it shouldn’t be the first Test of such an important series.

Over 24 million dollars have been spent at Cardiff on fixing the facilities so they could get this Test. That means one thing; this is not going to be a result pitch. They will want to squeeze every last second out of this Test, and I assume the game will be a draw unless one team collapses (dramatically, always dramatically) under the pressure. Expect a turgid and low surface, one that will spin, but not sideways like first reported. This will be trench warfare cricket, perfect for the occasion, but not always pretty to watch.

England are suggesting they will go in with two spinners. I have heard from a contact on the inside that this is a ruse. They know the pitch isn’t spinning as much as earlier in the season and are hesitant to go into the Ashes with Flintoff as the third seam option. So their team should look like this: Strauss, Cook, Bopara, Pietersen, Collingwood, Prior, Flintoff, Broad, Swann, Anderson, and Onions.

Australia is playing the waiting game on the pitch. Just the fact that they won’t pick Hauritz now suggests they know he is not in their best four bowlers. The final spot is between him and Hilfenhaus. Being that Hilfenhaus is not a real reverse swing artist, and make no mistake this pitch will suit reverse swing, Hauritz may just get the call, meaning the side look like this: Katich, Hughes, Ponting, Hussey, Clarke, North, Haddin, Johnson, Hauritz, Siddle and Clark.

Australia have the classier and better-credentialed batsmen, England have the inform ones. England have the experienced bowling line up, Australia have the bowlers with the better averages. Both teams have keepers who can bat and little else. England’s captain is well respected by his players, but is terrible at declarations, Australia has one who the players love, but is prone to furious anger that prevents him from making level headed decisions.

What to watch for:

  • Broad/Onions/Flintoff trying out England’s bumper theory to Phil Hughes.
  • Graeme Swann vs. the Australian left-handers, in Swann’s ideal world he would only bowl to left-handers.
  • The great all-rounder fight: Johnson vs. Flintoff
  • Swann and Siddle trying to be the most loveable Ashes figure.
  • Who will drop more catches Haddin or Prior?
  • KP has been unusually quiet, bet that won’t last.

It might not be the rollicking good time of 06/07, or the breath-taking dogfight of ’05, but it will be close. There is not much more than a Mitchell Johnson tongue stud between the two sides. There will be no 5 nils, sorry Glenn, Shane and Beefy.

Crikey‘s Ashes 09 coverage:

  • Prematch and postmatch reviews of each Test by Jarrod Kimber from the UK.
  • Daily reports for the Crikey Sports Blog by Jarrod Kimber.
  • Podcasts and daily media wrap of the best UK, Australian and ovwerseas coverage found at the Ashes 09 homepage.
  • An interview with Ashes legend Terry Alderman on who will win this years Ashes