Time for Ashes talk almost over

Steve Smith was 12 years old and can’t really remember much about it.

Rod Marsh had just resigned as chief of Australia’s cricket academy, where Shaun Marsh and Mitchell Johnson were scholarship holders.

Pat Howard was winning rugby titles with Leicester at the time, still very much a rugby man.

Darren Lehmann wasn’t in the Test side, despite dominating county cricket.

The year was 2001 and Steve Waugh’s men cruised to a 4-1 win over England in the Ashes.

If you think Australia’s most recent Ashes win in England seems like a lifetime ago, imagine how Lehmann must feel.

The gifted batsman was named Wisden Cricket of the Year in 2001 after run-laden seasons with South Australia and Yorkshire.

But Lehmann was overlooked as Australia won every Test easily except the fourth in Leeds – his adopted home.

The attacking left-hander was recalled to the Test side and posted five centuries, but his international career finished before the epic 2005 showdown started.

He coached Deccan to the Indian Premier League title in 2009, when Johnson came unstuck on the Lord’s slope.

Four years later he was appointed coach of Australia, some 16 days before the showpiece series started.

Unsurprisingly the urn stayed in the UK then, but it was captured 5-0 during the return series and now there are few excuses for Lehmann’s Australia.

Smith is the form batsman of the world and Johnson arguably the best bowler in the world, while recent form is strong and the squad has plenty of depth.

“We’ve got to worry about how we are going to produce really good cricket in England,” Lehmann said.

“Because we haven’t won here for 14 years.”

Mastering local conditions and the Dukes ball may be Australia’s focus leading up to July 8, when the five-Test series starts in Cardiff.

But as always with an Ashes series, there is plenty of peripheral.

In the past fortnight we’ve had: 5-0 predictions, pitch predictions, calls for a sledging armistice from repeat offender Jimmy Anderson, insider information, the mystique of mystery balls and the ‘Dad’s Army’ declaration.

Shane Warne has already weighed in, warning Anderson will “cop it” from the visitors.

The most heated conflict of the phoney war has somehow been Smith’s promotion to first drop.

Former England offspinner Graeme Swann and current swing specialist Stuart Broad opined it would help the hosts.

Johnson and David Warner have fired back, pointing to the ICC’s rankings and Smith’s impressive 199 at No.3 in the West Indies.

Brad Haddin, on his fourth and final Ashes tour, can only laugh.

“My take on it is there’s not much to write about leading up to an Ashes campaign, until the cricket starts,” Haddin said.

Although the keeper isn’t above helping out with the soap opera.

“I thought they weren’t sledging. I’m confused. One week they said no sledging, now they’re sledging Steve already,” he said, also poking fun at England’s recent ODI form.

The rise and rise of Smith, who boasts an astonishing five centuries from his past six Tests, is one of many interesting subplots leading up to the Ashes.

The current selection squeeze is intriguing given the strong form of the side – there could potentially be three changes to the XI if Chris Rogers, Ryan Harris and Mitch Marsh are all recalled.

There’s questions of how dour captain Alastair Cook will work with Trevor Bayliss, the first Australian to coach England.

There’s the fact three of Australia’s most influential players in recent years – Haddin, captain Michael Clarke and allrounder Shane Watson – almost certainly won’t play again in England.

“It burns very deep,” Watson said of never winning an away Ashes series.

Then there’s Johnson – the iconic express paceman who rose from the ashes of 2009, becoming the face of the 2013-14 series by humiliating England with 37 wickets.

“I know what to expect every time I come here now so it doesn’t matter what the crowd says,” the left-armer insisted.

“It’s all up in my head and what I do now.”

Much the same can be said of Australia.

On paper they are a superior side, while bookmakers and most pundits suggest they should retain the urn.

But the Ashes are rarely so straightforward – it’s a spectacle that has been built on unbelievable moments and Tests that seem scripted.

“It’s different cricket and it brings out a lot of different emotions,” Haddin admitted.

Especially after a 14-year wait.

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