After several years of stiff-collared, stiff-upper-lipped, stiff in all the wrong places squareness, decades dabbling with nothing headier the warm fuzz of mild ale and perhaps the occasional jazz cigarette (shhh, though!), 2015 has been English cricket's Summer of Love. We have proper got on one. Or is it gone off on one? Either way, a post-World Cup hangover has been chased off with a dose of Professor Shulgin's special lozenges, procured off that Dude from Dunedin with a trustworthy smile – "Yes, Brendon, I will follow you" – since when English cricket has been absolutely rushing its tits off.
That euphoric Test win at Lord's – Ben Stokes dancing on the speakers, 'avin it – was followed by a slightly nauseous, "did we come up too fast?" defeat at Headingley, before things plateaued during that loved-up ODI series, when the players' collective epiphany (not exactly fearlessness, more the fear of what fearfulness would do) fast-tracked the ECB's longed-for reconnection of the team with the fans. Let's hug it out, ECB.
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Of course, the visitors more than played their part in keeping things vibey. DJ B-Mac has dropped peak-hour bombs as set-openers – he started things with 'Maximum (Deep Cover Mix)' in Leeds – and noodly downtempo stylings when everyone expected bangers. Kane Williamson has given English cricket a tender, tingly, two-month head massage. We've crashed a couple of smokes off BJ Watling, had a gurn-inflected meandering conversation with Marty Guptill about I can't remember what. We've heard Trent Boult spin wonky leftfield shit in the back room that no-one could get their heads around – Jos Buttler threw some weird shapes to it, mind – and we all clamoured for "ONE MORE!", getting a slightly disappointing T20 in sunkissed Manchester (truly, a blessed time) for our troubles.
Then the Aussies arrived. The music stopped, the lights came up, and the bouncers (and there will be plenty of bouncers) spoiled the party, muscling us out into the Real World.
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See, if New Zealand were hippy idealists, there to infect us all with their high-minded utopianism, then Australia, with their mental disintegration and "broken fucken arms" are straight-up organised crims. As such, it's probably not overstating things to suggest that the forthcoming Ashes is essentially Good versus Evil (by way of clarification: shiny new England are the good guys). Do we want or need all that hostility? Aren't we a bit past all that antagonism malarky? Is this gonna be a really bad comedown? Maybe. Maybe not.
It's reasonable to assume that after all our joyous, early-season cavorting, we're now conflicted about all the conflict. There's bound to be some confused – let's call it Aggersian – hypocrisy on this matter, too: on the one hand, the lament in sections of the media for the slow erosion of the Spirit of Cricket, the waning civility and honour in the game ("Just look at Brendon: hard but fair!"); on the other, the failure to recognise that said sections of the media, obliged to fill hours of airtime and acres of print space, often done with bloody montages and salty anecdotes of mano-a-mano tussle, are complicit in the perpetuation of the tedious pantomime antipathy and jowly, 'Jerusalem'-singing jingoism.
(This is perhaps not the time to delve too deeply into the role of nation-states as vehicles for the prolongation of a transnational bourgeois elite's global hegemony – not if you've come here looking for stuff about Steve Smith's grip, or what line to bowl at Adam Voges – but just bear it in mind. Don't take country-love as a universal positive when it could equally be a psychological prison, even your innocuous sports supporting).
As a result, if you're English and simply fancied checking out the cricket – maybe even hoping a talented young buck like Starc would announce his red-ball skills – you will not be allowed. Show a hint of non-partisanship and you will be deported to a vast penal colony somewhere on the other side of the world...
Anyway, maybe our very testosterone coerces us into digging all the heavy-duty gladiatorialism. And from Larwood to Lillee, via Snow, Thommo, Harmy and Brett Lee, the history of the Ashes has undoubtedly been enhanced by aggression. It would be scientifically inaccurate to say it's in the Aussies' DNA, but they do seem to enjoy a stoush. So, rack up another line of amphetamine and get yourself over the top, noble Tommy, 'cos they aren't going to back down!
The tragic death of Philip Hughes may have brought out the statesman in Michael Clarke, yet it's highly unlikely that his players are going to be able to behave like choirboys in the heat of battle. Clarke's predecessors as skipper may have had their concerns over his metrosexual suitability for the squinting, sweat-soaked, leather-faced lineage of that office, yet it's fair to say the Baggy Greens will present a stiff-enough challenge to England's masculinity. Darren Lehmann, the coach, is not a man given to passing an afternoon browsing moisturiser catalogues, and he will be looking to hit England as hard and as often as possible. And why wouldn't you, since the pace department is an area of such conspicuous advantage for the visitors.
It used to be said of the great West Indian bowling attacks of the 1970s and 1980s that their strength could just as much be gleaned by the people outside the team – those habitual terrorisers of county cricket, Sylvester Clarke, Wayne Daniel, et al – as those that were in it. The same is not quite yet true of the current Australians, but they certainly have much more 90mph-plus thrust than England. A comparison of recent tour results in the West Indies (England drew 1-1 from three, Australia bulldozed to 2-0 from two) attests to this cutting edge.
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While a potentially tricky decision to omit one from the malevolence of Mitchells, Starc and Johnson, Josh Hazlewood and Ryan Harris has been deferred by the latter's knee condition, they have also been able to leave such stellar talents as Pat Cummins and James Pattinson behind. England, meanwhile, have reinvigorated things by unearthing a sharp, clever, handy operator in Mark Wood, upon whom we shall henceforth pin all our hopes (and against whom there will be something of a resentful backlash should his performances fail to allow us to properly vent all the built-up rage toward those bloody Australians that we seem to feel enhances our enjoyment of this hoary old ruckus).
No, the contrast is stark. The Aussie pace attack looks like a grindcore act called Throatcrusher – Starc the lanky, pogo-ing bassist; Harris pounding out a relentless rhythm on skins; Johnson all tatts, 'tache and axe solos; Hazlewood the handsome new front man with a dark heart – while England's fresh-faced foursome are a cherubic, expensively-coiffed prefab boy band called Good Areas (Stokesy, with his ink, is the Wild One).[body_image src='//sports-images.vice.com/images/2015/07/03/untitled-article-1435915601-body-image-1435915900.jpg' width='2000' height='1274']
Of course, getting in the opposition's face with any kind of conviction or credibility is somewhat problematised when your so-called Enforcer, a man with a Test 161 to his name, backs away from anything quicker than himself – which, depressingly, is usually about 83mph these days. That said, although he now runs in to bowl like a man with blisters on his blisters, and even if he has come to symbolise the team's emasculation Down Under, Broady is arguably worth picking as a kind of super-absorbent hatred sponge. A red rag to a bullish foe.
While it's almost always the bowling firepower that settles these things, and moving past all this boy band chat onto slightly more technical terrain, another problem England might face is that they have no-one who can 'bowl dry' in the manner of Watson or Hazlewood (Test economy rates of 2.74 and 2.51 respectively, compared to England's stingiest, Anderson's 3.05). In the past, Graeme Swann had done this job for England, particularly in the first innings, allowing a three-man attack to remain fresh. Nowadays they have a five-man attack, yet Moeen will be ruthlessly attacked, just as Swann was in his valedictory Ashes last year; Stokes is no line-and-length merchant; Anderson is needed to provide cutting edge; Wood's whole raison d'etre is to run in and give it a go, to offer aggression; which leaves the Enforcer...
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If the Aussies have more heavy weaponry in the bowling, then it's arguable England possess marginally the stronger batting line-up. Assuming the expected top sevens play, then a composite order would probably read: Cook, Warner, Smith, Clarke, Root, Stokes, Buttler – four Poms, three Aussies. Admittedly, that is not an especially scientific method of judging these things. Nor is the fact that England's top seven has 62 centuries from 285 Tests, Australia's 62 from 321.
At any rate, all too often it's lower-order runs that prove crucial – both short-term (match position) and long-term (draining effect on bowlers) – and here the Aussies' edge will be diminished without Harris. Moeen gives England depth at No8 (assuming he counters the absolute barrage he's going to get), but Broad and Anderson are likely to be donning the headphones and listening to Tchaikovsky's Chin Quartet, Sonata in F-Sharp.[body_image src='//sports-images.vice.com/images/2015/07/03/english-crickets-summer-of-love-is-over-its-time-to-emerge-blinking-into-the-ashes-body-image-1435917140.jpg' width='2300' height='1533']
Thankfully, though, we are nearly there. Some cricket is about to happen! Despite all the previews, the predictions, the prophecies – players wheeled in to say this or that to support The Narrative, goaded into making the sort of bold claims that can be thrown back in their face – it's impossible to say how it will all pan out. Form, schmorm; ratings, schmatings. A Test series is a nonlinear system: tweak a tiny detail here (stand on a ball, punch someone in Walkabout), and the overall picture can change. History is contingency, not inevitability, resting on the beat of a butterfly's wings. (Bear this in mind, however: should England win this series, then actual humans in the year 2019 will be able to say this without fear of contradiction: Australia haven't won an Ashes in England for 18 years.)
Nevertheless, England certainly need what cricketologists call "a spark", and my suggestion is that, given the foregoing claims about being outgunned by the Aussie bowling, what will help redress the machismo imbalance is if the engine room of Buttler and Stokes – maybe Root and Ali either side of the (not to mention KP: no, let's not mention KP) – create merry havoc. Give it a go! I can see Stokes running down the pitch to repeatedly knock Hazlewood off his repetitious length, Buttler racketballing Mitchell Johnson over his head and into the stands. And have Wood let fly at Michael Clarke, test out his back, following the old Windies philosophy of cutting off the opposition's head.
It will be keenly fought, yet stepping back from the parochial one-upmanship of it all, raising one's ears above the sound and fury generated by these biannual rumbles, there's a wider sense that, beyond the Ashes, Test cricket is becoming an archaism, preserved despite the world's attention (and attention-span) shifting to the super-compressed pleasures of T20. Cricket's landscape is changing fast – pink balls and day-night Tests – and in many ways Test cricket is vinyl culture in a digital age, kept alive by a hardy band of connoisseurs – just as you need the right equipment to bring alive the sonic voodoo inscribed on those vinyl discs, so you need the right faculties to get the nuance of Tests – yet more and more devalued in the place it matters most: the hearts and minds of the young, who are increasingly drawn toward the bitesize highlights of crash-and-bash.
But us Poms still love vinyl culture; we will still pack the clubs. And while Morgs and the cool kids have been getting on it to mp3s, here comes fuddy-duddy Alastair Cook with his heavy bag of records to play the summer's headline set. Dropped from the ODI side about sixteen years too late, "England's last red-ball Duke" now has to tap into the mood on the dancefloor. Clue: Gary Balance is stripped to the waist and swirling his top around his Irish bareknuckle boxer's head.
It's time to groove, Alastair.