Shane Warne, the leading wicket taker in Ashes history, is eager to see if this series can eclipse the 2005 contest.
The magic of Warne lives on
The England batsman should be sleeping better now they no longer have to dream up a strategy to contend with all the variations of Shane Warne, the great Australian spinner who was their nemesis for the best part of 14 years. However, the spectre of Warne, now 39, still looms large and he has not been shy in partaking in the traditional pre-series sledging. The England top-order now go down for breakfast, providing they do not over sleep, wondering which one of them will be picked out for attention by the leg spinner's sharp and loose tongue.
Having derided Paul Collingwood before the 5-0 Down Under in 2007, Warne has switched his attention to Ravi Bopara, claiming the Essex man is not good enough to succeed in international cricket. Such extreme opinions are always met with a pinch of salt, but his assertion that this summer's series will be unable to match the drama of 2005, appears to have struck a chord. "The 2005 series was one of the best in my whole career," said Warne. "It was great for the game of cricket and really captured the imagination.
"England played fantastic cricket that summer and thoroughly deserved to win. "Even though we lost, the spirit and camaraderie between the players was incredible. "I'm not sure who is going to win this summer but they'll be hard pressed to make the series as dramatic as four years ago. "There were so many twists and turns and neither team was ever going to give up the fight. "I'm not sure that this summer will be able to scale the heights of four years ago.
"It will be very close again and if I had to choose between the two, then I think Australia have the edge. "It really does depend on whether Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen are on top form because they can prove the difference." Much has changed since Australia last visited English shores with Warne having retired along with fellow greats Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist. Now, the focus is on the next generation with Mitchell Johnson inheriting McGrath's mantle as the country's premier strike bowler and young Phillip Hughes replacing Matthew Hayden at the top of the order.
Warne was 24 when he burst onto the scene at Old Trafford, bamboozling Mike Gatting with what was later described as 'the ball of the century' by the former England captain. That piece of magic in 1993 proved the catalyst for Warne, who went onto claim over 700 Test match wickets and receive the honour of being named as one of the five best players of the last century. "I'll never forget that moment in 1993," he revealed. "It is my favourite Ashes moment and the moment I really believed that I had a future in international cricket."
Now Warne is backing Australia's less experienced lights to shine on the world stage as they embark on their most difficult journey, despite strike bowler Brett Lee having been ruled out of the opening Test with injury. "Brett Lee is still a world-class bowler and there's no way he's finished yet," said Warne. "There have been a lot of changes and a few of us have retired but the lads have had 12 or 18 months to get used to it.
"They've played in big series before and this is no different. Playing against India in India was big and playing South Africa in South Africa, where they won, is also big. "People like Nathan Hauritz deserve their chance and I think he will surprise a few people. "He is a far better spin bowler than Graeme Swann and England shouldn't underestimate him. "There is the possibility that England will go to Cardiff and play two spinners and Australia don't play one at all. Hopefully that won't happen because Nathan has improved a lot and hopefully he will play.
"Mitchell Johnson's obviously going to start but when you've got two bowlers running in that fast they're going to pose a threat. "He will cause England all sorts of problems and I'm sure he'll prove the critics wrong. "Then there is Phil Hughes and Peter Siddle and England will be in trouble if they underestimate them." Warne took a staggering 40 wickets in the last series in England, despite ending up on the losing. It was, however, despite his brilliance, a dropped catch at the Oval in 2005 that potentially cost Australia the chance to level the series and retain the famous urn.
Pietersen had made a very nervy 15 and England were in a spot of bother when Warne, normally the most reliable of slippers, shelled the dashing right-hander at slip. Pietersen made him pay a heavy price, making a brilliant 158 that clinched the Ashes. Warne expects this series to be decided by a similarly fine margin "I think the two teams are pretty evenly matched and there's not really anything to choose between them," he said. "I can't really choose between them but it should be one great summer."