England v Australia: It doesn't get any bigger than this
Not one but two Ashes series, a British and Irish Lions tour Down Under, Murray at the Australian Open – and even Hamilton in his first grand prix for Mercedes. It's going to be a bumper year for beating the old enemy
The football fraternity and their adhesive attachment to brutish mores have already erased the insouciant glow, if not the memories, of that glorious summer of 2012. There stands Sir Alex Ferguson, a froth of rubicund outrage ranting at officials on the touchline; Harry Redknapp, the folk hero next door, pouring cant on the decisions of referees when his goalkeeper wafts at a ball from a foot behind the line. While another man of Mancunian manners, Roberto Mancini, and Redknapp are considering their responses to requests from the Football Association to explain their most recent abuses, let us bid farewell to that lot and look ahead to the delights of a football-free summer, with cricket and the oval ball set to define 2013 every bit as much as the Olympics and Bradley Wiggins did in 2012.
Though not the oldest international contest in sport, meetings between England and Australia offer arguably the richest history, unless there is any lingering fascination in cricket matches between the USA and Canada, who began cross-border competition 33 years earlier than the first "Ashes" series, in Bloomingdale Park, Manhattan. England's stirring resurrection in India and the commensurate upswing in interest feeds beautifully into back-to-back Ashes conflict, beginning at Trent Bridge on 10 July, a Wednesday start. Whatever next? A Friday start? Yes, there is one of those too, for the Fourth Test at Chester-le-Street on 9 August.
Only twice have England and Australia met back to back in the same year, and on neither occasion did the experience end well for the English leadership. Mike Denness was sacked during the return series in 1975, seen off by the belligerence of Ian Chappell and the twin menace of Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson. Fifty-four years earlier, Johnny Douglas went the same way.
We are in the first phase of two new reigns, Alastair Cook and Michael Clarke leading by example with the bat, so any bloodletting will come elsewhere. That England can look ahead with optimism after a year that saw them lose seven Test matches and the world No 1 Test ranking results from the successful rehabilitation of England's foremost South African, Kevin Pietersen, and the reliability at the top of the order of captain Cook.
Though England have yet to establish an opening partner for Cook, Australia are searching similarly for a partnership they can trust. Shane Watson is a fine cricketer but not the run-bank required at No 1. After a second successive home series defeat by South Africa, Watson slipped down the order against Sri Lanka to accommodate Ed Cowan alongside David Warner, himself far from secure. And now they have lost Mike Hussey from the middle order to early retirement.
The Australian attack is also in a state of flux. Mitchell Johnson was back among the wickets against Sri Lanka but he tanked here with the ball three years ago. Providing he stays injury-free, Johnson's runs make him a banker to start, but elsewhere there are decisions to make.
Nathan Lyon is a spinner the country finds hard to love. Peter Siddle with his aggression and commitment is pivotal to Australian hopes but fragile with it. Debutant Jackson Bird shared the new ball with Johnson and enjoyed some success in the Boxing Day Test, but Australia offer nothing like the stability of England in the bowling department, which will be squeezed almost beyond endurance in the marathons ahead.
After five Tests in a little over six weeks in the English summer, the sides resume for five more starting in Brisbane on 21 November. We shall be finishing our sentences with rising inflections this time next year.
Australia are also the opposition for the Lions, who first travelled Down Under as a British and Irish composite only 11 years after cricket opened its international chapter. The term Lions came later, and has since acquired a romance all its own.
Though the concept has strengthened in the professional epoch, the Lions have won only once since the 15-man code went full-time, in 1997 in South Africa. Four successive reverses, coupled with a consid- erable towelling for the northern- hemisphere sides in the autumn Tests (England's epic victory over the All Blacks and France's suppression of Australia aside), underlines the scale of the challenge. Australia's defeat in Paris was thought to highlight problems in a team beset by political unrest and injury, yet England were second-best all over the park seven days later at Twickenham, where Australia moved the ball around at a pace beyond the hosts, particularly at the breakdown.
The England and Lions forwards coach, Graham Rowntree, credits that defeat as the catalyst to the sea change in approach to the contact area. The result was witnessed two weeks later as the All Blacks were effectively All Blacked by an England side whose speed and ferocity stunned the visitors and ended their record unbeaten run.
Warren Gatland has already convened his first meeting as Lions head coach with Rowntree and Wales's No 2, Rob Howley. The emphasis will be on developing the same quick ball managed by England and, to a lesser degree, Wales in their final match in November, when Australia nicked the result at the death.
As New Zealand found out at Twickenham, playing under pressure is not quite as much fun as applying it. If fit, Brian O'Driscoll is tipped to lead the touring party in what will be his fourth and final campaign. Only Martin Johnson has led the Lions twice, and was the last to taste success, 15 years ago. What a fitting send-off it would be if the Irish totem were to follow in Johnno's bootprints in Sydney after the final Test on 6 July.
Five months before that, on the first weekend of February, the fight for Lions selection begins with the start of the Six Nations' Championship. "There's nothing like a Six Nations before a Lions tour," Howley said. "For both Graham [Rowntree] and myself when we were players, there was an 'X' on the calendar with the date of the First Test of a Lions tour. You knew that you had four or five games to perform in your national jersey, to put your hand up."
You could easily assume that the Aussies have annexed 2013 as their own national plaything. The first significant global event of 2013 begins in Melbourne, where Andy Murray hopes to embellish a British tennis CV that for the first time in 70-plus years boasts a Grand Slam crown. Murray's success at the US Open in September was only the third most popular British achievement in 2012. Were he to add a second title in the Rod Laver Arena on the last Sunday in January, he would significantly substantiate his standing in the game.
The challenge has eased, notionally at least, with the early withdrawal of last year's beaten finalist, Rafael Nadal. But Murray must still get past the champion, Novak Djokovic, and the eternal warrior Roger Federer. After a straight-sets defeat against Janko Tipsarevic at last week's Abu Dhabi exhibition, Murray admits he has a few things to work on.
The world's gaze returns to Melbourne on 17 March for the opening grand prix of the Formula One season. Six years after finishing on the podium on his F1 debut, Lewis Hamilton begins his post-McLaren career at Mercedes. The love died at Woking over Hamilton's commercial value, which centred on his image rights. McLaren argued the ¤15 million (£12.25m) they paid him annually over the length of his last contract no longer represented value in this age of austerity. Mercedes obviously see the world in a different way. Their need is certainly greater, but neither party can expect a significant return on investment until the radical downshift in engines from the present 2.4-litre V8 configurations to the 1.6 V6 variety scheduled for 2014.
In the meantime it is left to Jenson Button to carry the British fight to Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso at Ferrari. The latter benefited from the significant leap made in race strategy by the boffins back at Maranello HQ, where the British engineer Neil Martin, formerly of McLaren and Red Bull, has transformed performance with his mathematical modelling of the potential outcomes.
If the presence of Button gave McLaren the confidence to let Hamilton go, the pressure on him to deliver as a result is arguably greater than at any time in his career. Button won here in the first race of 2012 but was unable to build any momentum thereafter as the opening seven races yielded as many different winners.
Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods resume golf's great rivalry in Abu Dhabi in a fortnight. McIlroy's position as world No 1 is almost as unassailable as it was when Woods held the post at his peak. The great theme in golf boils down to the relative major successes of Woods – will he add a 15th in pursuit of the 18 majors held by Jack Nicklaus? – and McIlroy – will the boy wonder add a third major in the year he turns 24? His second at last season's PGA Championship in Atlanta was buried in the avalanche of Olympic gold. Victory at the Masters in April would see even the great Wiggo topped in a BBC popularity poll next December.
Wiggins has decided after all that he will attempt a defence of his historic Tour de France crown in July following an assault on the Giro d'Italia. Not the best news for fellow Briton Chris Froome, for whom Wiggins was expected to carry water this time around.
We will be knee-deep in Ashes combat by then, but doubtless with one ear tipped towards the 21 hairpins of Alpe d'Huez and other killer routes around the roads of Gaul.
Past five encounters
2002-03 Australia won 4-1
2005 England won 2-1
2006-07 Australia won 5-0
2009 England won 2-1
2010-11 England won 3-1
Murray at Australian Open
2008 First round, lost to Tsonga
2009 Fourth round, lost to Verdasco
2010 Runner-up, lost to Federer
2011 Runner-up, lost to Djokovic
2012 Semi-final, lost to Djokovic
Hamilton and Button at Melbourne GP
2008 Hamilton wins, Button retired
2009 Button wins, Hamilton disqualified
2010 Button wins, Hamilton sixth
2011 Hamilton second, Button sixth
2012 Button wins, Hamilton third
Lions tours of Australia
1950 Lions won 2-0
1959 Lions won 2-0
1966 Lions won 2-0
1989 Lions won 2-1
2001 Australia won 2-1
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