The recent ODI redemption over New Zealand has revived English cricket just in time for the arrival of an in form and dominant Australian outfit. A fascinating and often breathtaking Test series between the Kiwis and the Poms was actually surpassed by the level of cricket played during the one-day series.
The wonderfully innovative Brendon McCullum, New Zealand`s captain, might just have forced English cricket into the modern age and with it a decent chance of upsetting the Ashes formbook. Wise money should still be on Michael Clarke and his men but it may not be quite as easy as they had envisaged just six weeks ago.
Can Cook keep up the heat?
The key in all of this is Alistair Cook and whether he can continue the positivity from interim coach Paul Farbrace and Eoin Morgan. We are suddenly seeing England post 350 totals consistently in 50 overs, which was absolutely unheard of a couple of months ago. Translating this kind of approach with the red ball will be very necessary if Cook`s team are to stand a chance against the Aussies.
Joe Root, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes are all playing at their peak at the moment and they will remain absolutely vital to England`s cause in an Ashes cauldron. Sadly, I cannot see Cook installing the same kind of proactivity and freedom, it is just not in his nature. I hope I am proved wrong.
Battle for the Urn
So let us get to the heart of the Ashes and the battles that lie ahead. Make no mistake, New Zealand`s form in all formats of the game in the last 12 months makes them one of the best teams in the world right now. England therefore did well to draw the Test series and were magnificent in the proceeding one-dayers. We finally saw some much needed spark and flair through the likes of the irrepressible Joe Root.
Stokes the fire
However, one player for my mind has brought the crowds back through the turnstiles (and let us not forget the role the English supporters played back in 2005) and that is Ben Stokes.
Understandably, comparisons have been made with Beefy Botham and Freddie Flintoff, but both of these legends have said Stokes can be even better. Stokes may only fire on a few occasions but rather like his two impressive predecessors, those interventions will likely put England in a winning position. Stokes has the x-factor and he also has the aggression to fight fire with fire against Australia`s chief antagonists, David Warner and Brad Haddin. Australia have laid down their marker by saying they won`t back down on the sledging. Will England follow suit? Stokes will be the key man to give it back and counter attack against the formidable Australian bowling unit.
Talking of x-factor players, Australia has more than enough of their own. They have a batting line-up which can tear any attack apart on their day and England have to find a way of containing as well as counter-attacking. No easy task but with the likes of the exciting Wood, the evergreen Anderson and Australian`s bête noir Stuart Broad, England have a mixture of pace and guile which will trouble the Aussies.
In a spin
A glaring gap and a potential series decider is England`s lack of a decent spinner. With Swann retired, dear Monty somewhere in second XI cricket and Mooen Ali yet to convince as a top-line twirler, England`s options are limited.
Potentially, step forward Adil Rashid – Yorkshire`s leggie. Rashid`s inconsistency is his Achilles’ heel but equally he is probably one of the most talented players in the country. Perhaps his most telling spell for England came in the one-day series decider, another high scoring affair. He was England’s most economic bowler, grabbed two wickets and more importantly showed that he can bowl under pressure.
It remains to be seen whether Alistair Cook trusts Rashid enough to put him in against the most powerful batting line-up in world cricket. Not an easy decision but one that could be a turning point for England.
What will daunt the English batsmen is that there is a new Mitchell in town who is just as fast and arguably more accurate than their recent nemesis, Mitchell Johnson.
Mitchell Starc is the form bowler in world cricket at the moment and alongside Josh Hazelwood destroyed the West Indies last month. Remember, we haven`t even mentioned Ryan Harris or Peter Siddle yet.
Being able to put the pressure back on the bowler must be England`s approach because being 180 for 7 on a first day will not win Test matches. England has the players and the confidence to be more aggressive and take the attack to the likes of Lyon and Johnson. England may fail occasionally with this approach but a couple of 350 for 5s on a first day will go along way to winning a Test series.
This takes us to the match-ups that are most likely to determine the outcome of the 2015 Ashes.
Cook v Johnson
If Cook can occupy the crease and keep out Johnson, it will provide the platform for Root and Stokes to strut their stuff. Equally, an early wicket or two and the Aussies will scent blood and tear through the rest of England`s fragile top order.
Bell v Lyon
Bell is England`s best player of spin when on form, Lyon is Mr Consistent. Whoever wins that battle will create a platform for either side to attack.
Haddin v Buttler
Buttler is the coming man and is poised to become an England great. Haddin is a gnarled warrior who will harass the English batsmen behind the stumps with his chirping. He can also back it up by taking on the England`s quicks for a few boundries.
Warner v Anderson
Anderson can swing out the best of them. Warner is most definitely one of the best. If Warner survives the first session, he can put Australia into a winning position in two sessions. However, if Anderson snares Warner early, England have put an Aussie trump card back in the deck.
Stokes v Johnson
What a match up this is. Johnson can do no wrong at the moment and England are still terrified of what he can do with the ball. Enter Ben Stokes. He will relish the bouncers and he is no mean bowler himself. Whoever wins this battle more than likely wins the Ashes for their team.
So much to look forward to. I go for a 3-2 Australia win. England must not be afraid of losing; they must attack.
Australia beware, it is not going to be as easy as you think.
IMAGE: Brad Haddin, Mitchell Johnson and Shane Watson of Australia pose during an Australian Cricket Team Ashes 2015 portrait session. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)