Ashes pointers: 10 reasons to be cheerful and fearful

There are only 18 days left now. Eighteen days, after a gestation period that would have tested an elephant, 18 days of more predictions, psychology, analysis and mumbo jumbo.

Inevitably, the anticipation has burgeoned since the Australians landed with their one-day squad a month ago. Their early fallibility has been pounced upon as evidence that at last, after 16 years and eight series, they are ready to be toppled, that the Ashes truly can come home.

Each wayward ball, every loose shot and fielding error have been cited as reasons to explain what will happen between 21 July at Lord's and 12 September at The Oval. Gradually, inexorably, the 2005 Ashes have been taking shape. Each passing day something new might have emerged to influence what lies ahead.

Bad tempers

It is now a stone cold certainty that England will not be bullied out of it. That will have penetrated Matthew Hayden's psyche when his tart reaction to being hit by a Simon Jones throw unleashed a torrent of abuse from England fielders.

Sympathy for Hayden is diminished by his previous willingness to sledge, but uncorroborated allegations about his off-field bullying reflect badly on England. It does not augur well for cordiality, but both captains, while recognising that Test cricket is not a garden party, also know the proprieties. England must be sure they can support the words with deeds.

Top-order frailty

The possibility that both teams are keeping their powder dry cannot be entirely overlooked, but is more likely poppycock. The top order in both teams has been fitful, which is particularly disheartening for England.

Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss are jostling for position to fall under Glenn McGrath's metronomic spell. The likelihood is that they have plans to leave the ball more often. Hayden has looked in solid form, but he is not the intimidating presence he was. Ricky Ponting has looked out of form, with hard hands and soft legs, and the Test opener, Justin Langer, will be expected to start performing immediately.

Gillespie's decline

For eight years, Jason Gillespie has provided vigorous support to McGrath, not quite Dizzy Gillespie to Miles Davis but not far off. Last winter he was instrumental in Australia's series win in India, taking 20 wickets in four matches.

Here, he has been strangely subdued, almost innocuous. Doubtless there will be something in reserve but his pace has been down, which renders his movement less dangerous.

When a side use only four bowlers like Australia, the form of each is vital. It is premature to suggest termination, but England will be content to see continuation of same.

England's strategy

It is clear that Stephen Harmison and Andrew Flintoff are the bowling pair who will primarily propel England towards victory. They have bowled quickly and aggressively, getting appreciable lift and being unafraid to target their men.

This has sent out a significant message and if the Australians know what to expect, none will like it. A single over from Harmison at Bristol, bringing three beautifully crafted wickets, refuelled his empty tank of confidence. It has been thrilling stuff and it has allowed the feeling that England have the armoury to inflict pain, damage and possibly defeat.

Tremlett's rise

It would be madness to speculate that Chris Tremlett is the difference between England regaining the Ashes and staring down the usual barrel. But he has progressed quickly and the bounce he extracts because of his height is an important asset at any level.

His accuracy has grown, his speed might just be up to it and England have stumbled upon him in the one-day series. On reflection - though they were advised in some quarters - they might have blooded him in the Test series against Bangladesh. By the end of the summer, he could be a vibrant supporting act.

Warne's influence

A man's private life is, or should be, his own. Up to a point. Warne's has again been dragged through the tabloids, the penalty for fame and texting. The revelations and accompanying prurience should be separate, and Warne is patently a resilient character. But as one of England's finest, Graham Thorpe, has shown, marital break-up can and does unsettle people.

Top level sport magnifies slight weakness. It was always going to be intriguing to discover if Warne's potency remained intact, and his problems have the potential to affect him and the team.

Catches win matches

Vaughan has placed an emphasis on fitness which only Australia had truly understood before. Allied to the relative youth of his side, this is clearly reaping dividends.

The close catching will be of inestimable importance and Australia's ain't what it was. They were always bound to miss Mark Waugh and with regard to his slip catching they have never got over him. Dropped catches affect every facet. If Australia start shelling them as they have in the past month, they will experience something similar.

Pietersen the red herring

Much of the fuss in the past month has surrounded Kevin Pietersen's possible debut. While some distance from being much ado about nothing, it misses the point.

It has concealed the supreme importance of Vaughan, and, to a slightly lesser extent from the batting viewpoint, Flintoff to the home cause.

Vaughan is the class act, the classiest on either side. For England to win he must show the kind of form and fortune he managed in Australia last time (633 runs, three hundreds, average 63) and this summer is showing that his side dare hope for such prodigiousness.

Ponting's captaincy

This is the first time Ponting will have led Australia in an Ashes series. He has shown his mettle already and was most impressive in the immediate aftermath of the defeat by Bangladesh, when he was as plain-talking as could be. In Chester-le-Street he showed another side, becoming agitated when the press, especially the Aussie journalists, did not show sufficient obeisance for his liking towards the side's win.

There are reasons to suppose he is not as canny or as outwardly unflappable as his counterpart and that he may have to be if his bowlers become less reliable.

Do not panic

Whatever happens between now and September, England have shown they do not panic. That probably stems from the temperaments of their coach, Duncan Fletcher, and captain Vaughan. They are both capable of exhibiting outward calm.

It rubs off. Yesterday, Australia came out blasting. Vaughan changed his fields imaginatively as the tourists raced to 50. The fielding was not at its best but there were no remonstrations. A key lesson. Vaughan calmly changed his bowlers. Before the overs were half done, England's disadvantage was no more.

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