Big picture: Enter the Ashes paradox
At what stage will it all begin to matter?
Will it come when the teams line up for the national anthem, when the passion of the Hollies Stand seeps through the implacable demeanours of an England team that has been trained in the art of un-think?
Will it come when Joe Root is awoken from a Marnus Labuschagne-style slumber, to assess a scoreline of 2 for 2 in the second over, whereupon all those ghastly memories of Ashes past will start banging down the doors of his frontal cortex?
Or is all this for real? And have England genuinely and irrevocably transformed the parameters of Test-match cricket, by treating every facet of the contest as their personal playground, thereby consigning 146 years of history and precedent to the recycling bin?
And for that reason, we could be about to encounter the Ashes paradox, a never-before-accessed portal on England’s space-time continuum, where two (and in fact, maybe more than two) implacable truths are about to meet head-on.
And so, if England’s response this time out has been to block out the hype, then that’s not quite the same as disproving its existence in the first place. At some stage this summer – whether it’s the mounting buzz of sports-loving sun-seekers with no global football tournament to congregate around, or the encroaching dread of a strategy that has been found out – the Bazball bubble is sure to be breached by onset of real-think.
For the time being, however, it’s the over-think that’s in over-drive. For all of Ben Stokes’ admirable commitment to entertainment, what happens if England are 2-1 up going into the Oval Test, and the opportunity arises to bat Australia out of the contest? Do they accept the bore-draw and the return of the urn, or are they morally obliged to do as they did with New Zealand in Wellington, and risk the series for the sake of keeping things fun?
And, in keeping with the fact that the hype of the Ashes tends to overshadow everything else, none of the above even takes into account the fact that Australia have dispatched a generationally great team to challenge for their first series win in England since 2001.
All the same, here we are, on the eve of a mouth-wateringly tasty contest, with two blank slates and the summer set fair before us. Who truly knows what matters anymore. But it’s safe to say, we’re ready as cricket fans to believe the hype, even if the teams themselves will be keeping those eyes wide shut for a while yet.
England WLWWW (last five Tests, most recent first)
In the spotlight: Moeen Ali and David Warner
Team news: Broad retained ahead of Wood
Only time will tell whether Broad’s return is a reflection on Stokes’ readiness to fulfil his allrounder’s workload. He was putting his left knee through its paces in training, under the watchful eye of David Saker and the strength and conditioning coach, and declared himself fit to bowl on match eve, but Wood’s presence as an impact bowler would clearly benefit from being part of a guaranteed five-man attack. Either way, it means that Moeen’s return to the ranks, after an absence of 21 matches across 21 months of red-ball retirement, has been relegated to the second-most notable item of team news. Which is, in itself, a reflection of quite how crazy this series could turn out to be.
England: 1 Zak Crawley, 2 Ben Duckett, 3 Ollie Pope, 4 Joe Root, 5 Harry Brook, 6 Ben Stokes (capt), 7 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 8 Moeen Ali, 9 Ollie Robinson, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 James Anderson
Australia: (possible) 1 David Warner, 2 Usman Khawaja, 3 Marnus Labuschagne, 4 Steve Smith, 5 Travis Head, 6 Cameron Green, 7 Alex Carey (wk), 8 Mitchell Starc, 9 Pat Cummins (capt), 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Scott Boland
Pitch and conditions
It’s been a sweltering week in the UK, and though the first two days at Edgbaston look set to be scorchers, there’s a strong possibility of rain interruptions from Sunday onwards which may play a part in how this contest shakes down. A straw-coloured pitch has been rolled out in the centre of Edgbaston, and to judge by McCullum and Jonny Bairstow’s firm pushings and knockings on the eve of the contest, it’s likely to be hard and true, just as ordered.
Stats and trivia
“A player like Mo who I have seen put in some unbelievable match-winning performances, albeit a long time ago, was something I couldn’t look past. That was a stomach and a heart feeling, rather than my brain. Generally I have stuck with my heart and my gut throughout my captaincy so far. Moeen Ali is going to come in here and I am looking at what he can offer on his best days, and not worrying anything else.”
Ben Stokes on the rationale behind Moeen Ali’s return to Test cricket
“They’re obviously a very good white-ball team England, but Test cricket’s different, the ball moves a little bit differently. You can’t always bat exactly like you would in a one-day game and I think that’s the strength of our bowling unit.”
Pat Cummins, Australia’s captain, backs his bowlers to bazooka Bazball
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket