Harmison still has enough pace to worry any batsman

Matthew Hayden’s Ashes Summer: Starting today, the man at the heart of Australia’s most successful side ever shares his unique insights and hard-hitting opinions in an exclusive column
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Nobody should be under any illusions about the importance of the Ashes. It has been and is the most meaningful experience in cricket and the players who are on tour with Australia at present will have an excited buzz about them that you can almost hear.

Coming up are the greatest months of their sporting lives, because Test cricket – and Test cricket between Australia and England – is an absolute joy. The eight weeks ahead will be, whatever happens, memorable.

The Australians will be a little bit like dogs who have a bone and get very grouchy when somebody tries to take it away. They will not let go of the Ashes easily. Rule one in dogfights is all about that very definite moment where one dog blinks first. Whoever blinks is losing – and the shift of momentum is swift.

It is usually like that in the Ashes. In 2005, it could be said that England blinked first by losing at Lord's and they went on to recover. Even so, there were early signs of what would happen – when Stephen Harmison bowled on that first morning.

Harmison's first ball in the next Ashes series was a defining moment. It went, of course, to second slip – England had blinked. The next ball ripped into Justin Langer's gloves but that mattered not at the time because the image that went round the world and was replayed again and again for the next six weeks was of the first ball. It was bound to have an effect on the psyche of the team. Small moments, big outcomes.

But I'm not here to throw rotten tomatoes, and England should seriously consider reintroducing Harmison to their side. He has good pace and bounce that no batsmen likes to face. And his good friend Andrew Flintoff is a massive key to this series.

I remember from 2005 how the England attack seemed as thick as thieves, and that turned out to be so important. There they would be at the end of a hard day practising together, making plans together, the four just men. And the friendship between Flintoff and Harmison may have a significance in the weeks ahead as well.

It's time for me to bat for my family instead of country

The question I am most often asked at present is the obvious one – and no, I don't have any regrets about not being out there in the middle in Cardiff when the first ball is bowled on Wednesday.

It was a goal of mine to play in this series, but when I decided to retire from international cricket I had zero doubts. It had been a great part of my life but the day came – after 17 years – to acknowledge by deed as well as word the importance of family, and to be involved in the day-to-day life of my children.

My seven-year-old daughter Grace is, of course, like all seven-year-old daughters to their dads everywhere, an adorable sweetheart who happens to believe that Santa Claus comes from Melbourne, because that's where she has spent every Christmas of her life while her dad has been playing the Melbourne Test.

So while it was an abiding privilege to play for Australia, the time to leave had come. There were obvious emotional feelings, about missing the deep comradeship that comes from being in that dressing room and playing for your country. The obvious ingredient that requires is 100 per cent commitment to your team-mates and the cause, and I could not produce that any more.

It would be remiss not to mention the departure of Michael Vaughan earlier this week. It had been a goal of his, too, to play in this Ashes series, but he recognised ultimately that it was not going to happen. He was a fantastic leader of men, who always had a tremendous sense of respect, and is a big loss to England.

Hughes is the key to the new Australian engine room

Australia's team is different. The names that are missing from 2005 are legion. Much, of course, is being made of the form of Phil Hughes, the batsman who replaced me I guess, and he has made an immediate and wonderful impression.

But rather than dwell on Phil – and there is plenty to dwell on – I think it is important to look generally at the Australian batting engine room. That was a point that David Boon made to me many years ago, about looking at the top three in the round.

What you do not want is what happened in 2005 when the middle order was too often exposed. That's when life becomes difficult.

So that top three now is Hughes, Simon Katich and Ricky Ponting. Hughes brings the marvel of the new, Katich has matured in his role and Ponting may be the best batsman ever to have played the game.

In the bowling attack there will be key roles for Mitchell Johnson and Peter Siddle. Johnson, a fellow Queenslander, is a bowler who now knows his game. Against South Africa last summer he developed that inswinger to right-handed batsmen which can be so menacing and I expect him to be a linchpin of the attack. Siddle is an Australian type of bowler, all heart, who has been compared to Merv Hughes. Everything will be left out on the pitch.

Do not dismiss lightly the claims of Brett Lee, who has 300 Test wickets' worth of experience, knows England and has the huge asset of high pace. Stuart Clark will relish the conditions in England, the one place where things are a bit different in Test cricket, and his unerring ability to home in on off stump will be thoroughly testing in the conditions.

And then there is the spinner, Nathan Hauritz, the man who has to follow Shane Warne. It is irrelevant, like comparing apples to oranges. Nathan is what he is and his job in the side will be entirely different. Australia will know that and will not be expecting him to be Shane. He will do a holding type role and he will do it better than some might expect.

Strauss can't compete with Ponting's experience

The captaincy could be vital. Andrew Strauss may be a captain from the Vaughan mould but he has not won an Ashes. It is the defining moment of a captain's career and Ponting, the man whom he will meet at the toss for the first time in Cardiff next Wednesday, won them back in 11 days.

Strauss is an admirable and consistent performer, who scored two hundreds in the 2005 Ashes series. His partnerships with Marcus Trescothick at the top of the order were extremely important to England's cause. But Ponting has been there and done it as captain.

T20 and Tests go hand in hand for future of game

For the next six weeks, all the attention of the cricket world will be on Test cricket and I would have it no other way. As the day of the first match approaches the buzz will only become greater.

But cricket has found a new form in Twenty20 and its role in the future of the game cannot and should not be underestimated. The Indian Premier League, which I have just played in again, is my cricket now and its influence and the influence of Twenty20 generally is not to be ignored.

It has given opportunities to take the game to places where it has either never been or not prospered, to the US and China. I think it is worth mentioning that when Australia were in Mohali and Sachin Tendulkar was about to break the all-time record for the number of career runs scored by a batsman in Test matches, there was a smattering of people in the ground.

Stories like this abound about Test cricket. That is another reason the next few weeks are so special, that we will see the game at its peak. Twenty20 is here to stay and may take cricket to the Olympic stage eventually, but it won't be able to do that without Test cricket. The history of the game is here, but so is its future.

The Ashes in the Independent

This summer, The Independent will be following the action and setting the agenda with all the essential comment and analysis that counts

*Matthew Hayden will be writing each week, giving his unique insight and setting up each Test on the opening day of play.

*On Saturdays, England's former opening bowler and now highly acclaimed cricket writer Angus Fraser will provide his opinions on how the Tests are shaping up, and addressing the key twists and turns as the action unfolds.

*Peter Roebuck, former Somerset captain and one of the world's leading writers, will be at the heart of Australia's camp.

*And our cricket correspondent Stephen Brenkley will cover the unfolding drama and provide analysis.*Finally, the former England captain Alec Stewart completes the coverage with stats and stories from Ashes past.