Today, summer officially begins. Though as I say that, here in Melbourne, it is raining and Brisbane has early showers forecasted. But hell — it’s cricket, therefore summer, nonetheless.

So weather aside, what can we expect? Certainly England have prepared well, winning two and drawing one of their three tour games. Their first XI is settled, unlike Australia’s, and unlike Australia they carry few form or injury concerns into the Ashes opener. I expect England to make a statement. I don’t like the thought of Australia losing the First Test — and history is certainly against England — but there’s a certain Waugh-esque resolve about the Poms and that surprises as much as it concerns me.

The money is for Australia though. The TAB has Australia as $2.10 favourites — due to their impressive record at the Gabba. England are at $2.95 and a draw is $3.85.

Players to watch from Australia:

watson Shane Watson Fit, firing and confident. Expect to make impact with bat and ball.
BJ Brad Haddin Returns to the side looking fit and sharp. Razor like glove work in recent Sheffield Shield games. Could be X-Factor with the bat at seven.
MJ Mitchell Johnson Perfect pre-Ashes warm up with a five wicket haul and a century against Victoria. Is the bell-weather player for Australia with the ball. Will be handy too if he makes runs.

Players to watch from England:

strauss Andrew Strauss
The England captain is the bedrock for a successful Ashes series for England. If he fires, England will fire. The team will draw confidence from his performance.
eddie Paul Collingwood
There is a certain non English quality about this tough as nails middle order English batsman — that quality is he is not soft. He loves a scrap. Could be a massive thorn in the side of Australia.
swan Graeme Swann England has a world class spinner and we don’t. If that’s not a cause for concern nothing is. Won’t back away from a fight which is another concerning trait among this team.

Crikey predictions:

Leigh Josey: I am picking England to surprise us in the First Test. It makes me feel sick writing that. England’s preparation has been superb. Again, I feel sick writing that. Their balanced side worries me, as does their cohesiveness. Whoever wins this Test, in my opinion, will win the series. A major concern for me is Michael Clarke’s injury worries and Xavier Doherty’s inexperience. Watch for the England batsmen to target Doherty. Marcus North and Mike Hussey’s recent frailties won’t help either if the top order fails — especially in the first innings.

Tom Cowie: Sorry Leigh, I can’t agree with your pessimism. We haven’t lost a test at Woolloongabba in 21 years and, while England has prepared very well, I still think the Gabba will continue to be a happy hunting ground for the Australians. I’m expecting either a rain-affected draw or an Australian victory here. The weather is obviously going to be a big factor and, with a little juice in the deck, it could play into the hands of the Aussies.

The conditions will be made for Ben Hilfenhaus and if Mitchell Johnson is ever going to get it swinging again, it will be here. Doherty could either be a match-winner or someone to hide. Obviously our batting is a big concern, but, if Watson and Katich can offer a decent start, we might see some scores from Ponting, Clarke, Hussey. The English bats are in terrific form, with most having knocked up tons in the lead-up games, so we need wickets early. I’m particularly worried about Strauss and Pietersen and even the once-shaky Bell looks in form.

If we can come away with a draw I reckon it will offer great heart to the Australians going into Adelaide and will hopefully take the sting out of an English team that looks very fired up.

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