Glenn McGrath, Australia’s most successful fast bowler in Test cricket, has joined the BBC for the 2019 Ashes series. He will be part of the Test Match Special commentary team and contribute a regular column to the BBC Sport website.
You can tell yourself that everything is normal, and try to keep the same routine from every other Test match, but there is always something extra special about an Ashes series.
Growing up, you want to play cricket for Australia in the knowledge the Ashes is the ultimate.
I’m told that, from an English perspective, there is a certain romance to following the cricket when the battle for the urn is in Australia.
Staying up late on cold winter nights to listen to the radio, or seeing television pictures of the dazzling Australian sunshine.
I can certainly recognise that feeling, only from the opposite point of view. Yes, our winters aren’t as cold, and my arrival into the UK has been greeted by rain, but I remember my days as an academy player, staying up through the night to watch the 1993 Ashes.
The next time Australia came here, in 1997, was my first tour. In the first Test, things didn’t go to plan. We bowled the wrong lengths and England beat us convincingly.
The next day coach Geoff Marsh made us bowl for a couple of hours off our full run-ups to practice getting it right. From then on – we won three of the next four Tests to retain the urn – I always looked forward to coming to England and getting hold of the Dukes ball.
How would I feel if I was getting ready to play in this series, preparing myself to bowl at an England top three that is far from solid? Quietly confident.
England’s recent batting in Test cricket hasn’t been great. Just last week, they were bowled out for 85 by Ireland. Joe Root is a quality player at number four, but those coming in ahead of him haven’t been settled for some time.
In the past, I bowled at players like Michael Atherton, Alec Stewart, Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick, but England do not currently have a top order that has been successful Test after Test, series after series.
For that reason, I’d be champing at the bit to get the first Test started, hoping to begin well, because that can be 75% of the battle.
England’s stronger suit is their bowling, but they are not alone.
Even if it is hard to take a lot from Australia’s warm-up game in Southampton, where the ball jagged around and not many runs were scored, the tourists’ strength still lies in their attack.
Pat Cummins is a high-quality performer, currently ranked as the number one Test bowler in the world. James Pattinson is back in the side and bowling exceptionally well, while Josh Hazlewood will be keen to perform after a spell out injured.
However, to me, Mitchell Starc is the most interesting case of all. On his day he is one of the best in the world, but he can blow hot and cold. We’re waiting to see which version of Starc turns up for this series.
Australia have a number of options for who joins off-spinner Nathan Lyon in their attack for the first Test at Edgbaston on Thursday – there’s also the vastly experienced Peter Siddle and uncapped Michael Neser, who took wickets in Southampton.
I’ve only just arrived in the UK, but from I’m hearing around the traps, Cummins and Hazlewood will play.
After that, it depends on the conditions. If the pitch is likely to offer some movement, they may well opt for Pattinson to put the ball in the right area and get the most from the assistance.
If it is flat, then Starc’s pace through air might be the better option.
Like England, Australia will have to find a way to score runs and, in their bid to do that, they could reunite Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft, the trio that were banned for using sandpaper on the ball in South Africa last year.
For Smith and Warner, this was always going to be their first opportunity to play Test cricket, while Bancroft, whose ban was shorter, has earned his chance by making runs in Southampton.
Smith and Warner got a taste of the reception they will receive at Edgbaston during the World Cup.
To me, the booing was a little harsh. What they did is long way into the past and they have paid a heavy price for what they did.
But it is also to be expected. For all three, the best way to deal with it is to score runs. If they do that, it will help them to move on from the whole affair. If they don’t, the crowd will continue to remind them and it could turn into a very long series.
Of the three, perhaps the most interesting to observe will be Smith. Remember, he was the best Test batsman in the world at the time he was banned.
In the last Ashes series, he was a major difference between the sides, piling on 687 runs. England could barely get him out.
Can he reach the same heights again? The past year has really knocked him around and that has taken its toll.
However, he loves cricket and we saw glimpses during the World Cup that he might be getting back towards something near his best.
If he can score runs during the Ashes, in front of the toughest crowd he will ever face, it will show tremendous strength of character.
And so to Edgbaston, the first Test of the series. England’s love of playing there reminds me of when Ashes series down under start in Brisbane, one of Australia’s happiest hunting grounds.
Tests at the Gabba often set the tone for what is to come. If England win this week, that will put them right on track to regaining the urn.
But if Australia win, that will be a huge step towards a first series win here since 2001.
The Ashes has been dominated by the home teams for the best part of two decades and, even though Australia have a good chance of ending that this time, the two sides are very evenly matched. I find it hard to say the team that I back will lose, or even draw, a match and so I do think Australia will win the series, but I’m not sure on the scoreline.
I’m not one for making those sorts of predictions….
|Men’s Ashes 2019: England v Australia, first Specsavers Ashes Test|
|Date: 1-5 Aug. Time: 11:00 BST. Venue: Edgbaston|
|Coverage: Ball-by-ball Test Match Special commentary on Radio 5 Live Sports Extra and BBC Sport website, plus in-play highlights and text commentary|
Glenn McGrath was speaking to BBC Sport’s Stephan Shemilt.