It all starts here. The long and winding road – covering 26 matches, 66 days of playing time spread over almost nine months at 16 different grounds – will have its ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday.
England are playing Australia in the Champions Trophy, the first match in Group A of a competition that is already promising to be both exciting and close. The result is likely to be instrumental to the advance of both sides in an event that Australia have won on its last two occasions and England have never won.
But beyond that there stretches two Ashes series, 10 matches in all, and fitted in between a motley crew of other 50-over and 20-over matches. It is fair to suggest that they will be fed up with the sight and sound of each other by the time February comes round.
At Edgbaston, however, the novelty of it all was palpable. England looked to be in slightly better order, having concluded their one-day series against New Zealand with a victory. Australia were still trying to come to terms with the loss of their captain, Michael Clarke, probably for the whole tournament, and with a dramatic loss of form in their warm-up game against India on Tuesday, when they collapsed to 65 all out.
Alastair Cook, England’s captain in his first major one-day event, did his best to refute the notion that it signalled a beginning. He preferred to dwell on the importance of the matter at hand.
“The Champions Trophy is such an important event in itself,” he said. “Clearly playing Australia in the first game with the Ashes coming up, everyone’s going to talk about that, but I think both sides will be seeing it as needing to win to get the tournament off to a good start rather than anything else, which is later in the summer.”
But it did not escape the attention of many seasoned observers that it was in the Champions Trophy at Edgbaston in 2004 that another Ashes campaign was informally launched. That was a semi-final and England won by six wickets. It came to be viewed as a seminal victory for the Ashes the following summer.
In those days, of course, England had to take what they could from Australia, which was not much. Now it has changed a little. England have held the Ashes twice, home and away.
Portents or not, England will be relieved that, unlike their opponents, they have all 15 players in the squad to pick from. The fast bowlers, Stuart Broad and Steve Finn, have recovered from knee and shin ailments respectively. The only doubt surrounds Tim Bresnan, whose wife, Hannah, is due to give birth to the couple’s first child any time. The due date for delivery was last Monday.
If he does not have to make a sudden dash to Yorkshire, Bresnan will play in a side that will probably revert to the balance of five batsmen, five bowlers of whom three can wield a bat adequately, and a wicketkeeper who can wield one spectacularly.
Jos Buttler’s match-turning 47 not out from 16 balls at Trent Bridge on Wednesday night, which represented a kind of coming-of-age in one-day internationals, may persuade Cook and the coach, Ashley Giles, that he does not need the bulwark of six batsmen before him. This would be hard cheese on Ravi Bopara, who did all that was expected of him the other night, but England are content as far as possible to dwell in the land of the specialist now.
“It has made us think about how to balance the team for the game,” said Cook. “I think it’s a good position to be in. It’s nice that that worked, though, and obviously the fifth bowler being Ravi seemed to work well in that game. It gives you the option. So we can change the way we play, which we probably haven’t been able to do in the past. It gives us a selection headache in one way, but a good one.”
The new batch of ODI regulations favour England in many ways but could be a disadvantage if this event hots up. At present, England can eschew the principle of pinch-hitters at the top of the order, having decided that the use of two new balls requires players with the method to withstand them, in this case Cook and Ian Bell.
But the white ball has not moved appreciably so far and as India demonstrated at Cardiff on Thursday there is still scope for plundering runs in the opening overs. What England have to be wary about is being too circumspect, expecting too much of Eoin Morgan and Buttler in the last 15 overs.
Buttler may quite rightly have taken all the plaudits for his bold endeavour at Trent Bridge but the feeling persists that if Morgan has a poor tournament then so will England. If he can assemble a run of quickfire scores then they could go all the way.
They have the bowling to do it, having decided that the balls rule and the fielding regulations require the top-notch practitioners. Jimmy Anderson, Graeme Swann, Broad, Finn and Bresnan will be the men entrusted largely to secure the Ashes as well. And the first two matches against New Zealand showed what can happen with a second-string attack.
England’s team will feature as many as nine players who may start their Ashes campaign; Australia’s XI may include as few as three. That is a symptom of how both nations view the challenge and treat the different disciplines of the game. But England clearly believe that the best cricketers will prevail whatever the format.
Down that road, when the ribbon-cutting has been long forgotten and the terminus is in sight, they may think they could have done it differently. But this is no time for rest and rotation.
It may not be the time, either, to rap out a warning for the Ashes, however victory by either side would be greeted. This is the time for the host nation to secure their 47th one-day win against Australia to make viable their attempt to win their first 50-over trophy.
* Probable teams:
England A N Cook (capt), I R Bell, I J L Trott, J E Root, E J G Morgan, J C Buttler (wkt), T T Bresnan, S C J Broad, G P Swann, J M Anderson, S T Finn.
Australia G J Bailey (capt), S R Watson, D A Warner, P J Hughes, A C Voges, M S Wade (wkt), M R Marsh, J P Faulkner, M G Johnson, M A Starc, C J McKay.
Umpires K Dharmasena (SL) and M Erasmus (SA).
TV 10am-7pm, Sky Sports 1
Weather Warm and sunny, with intermittent cloud. Max temp: 18C.
Odds: England 8-11; Australia 11-10
* Results so far
Group B India beat South Africa by 26 runs. West Indies beat Pakistan by two wickets
* Fixtures (10.30am unless stated)
Saturday (Group A) England v Australia, Edgbaston
Sunday (A) New Zealand v Sri Lanka, Cardiff
Monday (B) Pakistan v South Africa, Edgbaston (1pm)
Tuesday (B) India v West Indies, The Oval
Wednesday (A) Australia v New Zealand, Edgbaston
Thursday (A) England v Sri Lanka, The Oval (1pm)
Friday (B) South Africa v West Indies, Cardiff
15 June (B) India v Pakistan, Edgbaston
16 June (A) England v New Zealand, Cardiff
17 June (A) Australia v Sri Lanka, The Oval (1pm)
19 June Winner Group A v runner-up Group B, The Oval
20 June Winner Group B v runner-up Group A, Cardiff
23 June Edgbaston