For years I have maintained that the only three things in life worth staying up all night for are work, love and the Ashes. As life goes on, I have begun to entertain some doubts about the first two.
Not so the Ashes. This year’s series has none of the hallmarks of a classic. It is less a clash of Test titans and more a coming together of two curates’ eggs: incomplete and undercooked sides that may or may not be the sums of their parts.
Yet the fact of the contest — with its history stretching out of living memory but its rivalries and past squabbles still very much fresh and raw — is as stirring as anything in sport. The long grind Down Under, where the Pom-bashing is as lethal as the wildlife, exposes character and has broken bigger cricket men than most who will walk out at (our) midnight in the Gabba this week.
By the time five Tests are done and they are pulling up the stumps at the Sydney Cricket Ground on the other side of Christmas, we will know a lot more about this year’s crop of Ashes cricketers. Which is no bad thing, for if one thing characterises both squads, it is unfamiliarity. With themselves, each other and with us.
Cast your eye down both team-sheets. There are at least as many young bucks as old lags: which makes it very hard to know what to expect, still less what to predict.
England retaining the Ashes at 2-2 is possible but 5-0 (to the Aussies) is also perfectly imaginable.
Anyone betting on this one with absolute confidence either has Biff Tannen’s sports almanac or balls made of titanium.
Be that as it may. The bookmakers have Australia as favourites for the series — assuming, I suppose, that their Plan A for taking 20 wickets per match looks more convincing than England’s.
Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood would seem a more likely combination for fast, bouncing pitches than James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes and Jake Ball.
By contrast, England’s Plan A for taking 20 wickets in the same conditions is not quite so clear, with the exception of the Second Test at Adelaide where the combination of pink ball and day/night floodlights should turn conditions more to their liking.
Ashes 2017/18 | Standard Sport's ultimate guide
Elsewhere, with a red Kookaburra ball, on back-of-a-length pitches without the promise of lateral movement, there will certainly be some long days in the field for Joe Root’s men, whether they win or lose.
Yet if Australia have a promising Plan A, they lack for the rest of the alphabet. That is where England have the edge, in the bowling department at least.
They are working on the basis of five bowlers (Moeen Ali complementing the pacemen), in the hope that the conditions reward quantity as much as they do quality.
If any one of Starc, Cummins and Hazlewood is injured it will cause Australia far greater problems than if England were to lose another quick.
My gut is that this is where the series will be decided. There is so much uncertainty and inexperience around both batting line-ups that it is hard to know who will flourish — or not. On the English side, Mark Stoneman, Dawid Malan and James Vince have as much to prove as Cameron Bancroft, Peter Handscomb and the much-maligned Tim Paine.
For that reason, much depends on the aforementioned old lags. England’s Alastair Cook knows what it is like to fill his boots in Australia. Joe Root needs to find out what it’s like if he is going to fulfil all his mighty potential. Set against them are the big-mouthed plunderer David Warner, and Steve Smith, the world’s best batsman. Each of these four has it in them to decide a Test — even a series — on the strength of a personal purple patch.
So we are in the curious position of having two imperfect teams lining up for an Ashes series that could scarcely be more intriguing. England, as holders, can win by not losing.
Australia’s pride, not to mention their customary sporting bloodlust, can only be satisfied by giving out a whipping. Wednesday night is coming. Let the insomnia begin.