If England is a nation of glass-half-empty sports fans, then Australia is the more hopeful alternative.
In broad terms, whereas the English might expect failure with everything else a bonus, fans on these shores tend to anticipate success. In a cricket context, perhaps it’s an outlook ingrained since the dominance of the early 2000s, or maybe something psychologically deeper at play.
Whatever the case, hope and expectation has filled the air in most recent tours of England. Aussie fans have been optimistic about their chances in three of the last four away Ashes series. Yet, as we well know, the Australian team has walked away with nothing to show for their efforts in all four.
In 2005, 2009 and 2015, fans ranged from the cautiously optimistic to the supremely confident in the case of 2005.
But their nation’s cricketers would, on each occasion, stand stoney-faced at the Oval on the series’ final day as the old enemy lifted the replica urn. It was only in 2013 – when a disjointed Australian side lost 3-0 under the newly-elected Darren Lehmann – that few actually expected success.
But in 2019, again, a sense of optimism again fills the nostrils of the average Australian fan. Sitting down before the first session tonight, there’s a feeling in lounge rooms across the country that for the first time in 18 years, their cricketers might just return the urn from a campaign on English soil.
But we’ve been here before only to be proven wrong, underestimating England and overestimating our own in the process. So why will it be any different this time around?
Undoubtedly much hope is derived from the strength of Australia’s bowling attack – which by any measure is at its deepest since 2005 – and England’s top-order frailties.
Given the pedigree of the seamers and England’s propensity to collapse, as they have done various times in the last few years, Justin Langer’s side are quite justifiably seen as a strong chance to win the series.
Cricket stats man Andrew Samson revealed last week that between 1938 and 2016, England never lost ten wickets in a session. But in their last 34 Tests, they’ve done so on four occasions – the latest against Ireland at Lord’s last week.
And this goes to the heart of Australia’s chances this Ashes series. If they can consistently expose England’s strong middle order to a new ball, it shifts a huge amount of pressure onto Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler, who will be asked to shoulder a huge load.
In 2015, the Aussie seamers searched for wickets too often, and were punished for it. Josh Hazlewood has spoken of patience this time around, and avoiding being greedy with the Dukes. It appears they’ve learnt a valuable lesson.
The past four UK Ashes series have seen England boast top order players such as Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Strauss, Ian Bell, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook. This time, only captain Joe Root looms as a steadying influence.
In Rory Burns, Joe Denly and Jason Roy, three of England’s top four are largely untried and, in turn, likely to be exposed as ill-equipped at the level.
That’s the good news for Australian fans. The bad news is, as I wrote last week, that while England’s top order remain unconvincing, there’s also little evidence to suggest that the Australian batsmen have curbed their own deficiencies against the moving ball.
So while the pace of James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Peter Siddle is undoubtedly formidable, whether they’ll have totals to bowl at is perhaps the bigger question.
Only one player in the squad – Steve Smith – has made a Test century in England, and much will be placed on his shoulders. The former captain is also likely to come under significant fire from the English crowds, especially this week in Birmingham.
Australia has maintained that booing and criticism only spurs on their players, but whether that holds until mid-September is to be seen.
This week will be far tougher that anything they faced throughout the World Cup. Edgbaston is a robust ground for visiting teams, and somewhere Australia hasn’t won at in its last 11 tries in all formats.
Another uncontrollable from an Australia perspective is the manner in which England responds to their World Cup triumph. Will the historic win at Lord’s inspire further success? Or will the short turnaround into yet another physically and emotionally exhausting campaign prove too much?
The answer to that, and so much more, will begin to unveil itself tonight. Strap in, we’re set for a beauty.