The next 12 months is an Ashes year like no other, with back-to-back series in England and Australia which will dominate the cricket calendar.
With six months to go England are looking pretty sound. They have a squad of 13 or 14 players which will remain the same for both Ashes series. It is a lot harder to judge Australia because of the injuries and retirements they have suffered over the past couple of years. If Australia have a fully fit bowling attack with six or seven of their young fast bowlers available for selection then it is a 50-50 call. But if Australia were to lose three or four bowlers again then England would be favourites.
The retirements of Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey spell the end of the old guard. The next generation now have their chance and there are more opportunities in Australian cricket than at any time since 1989. Only Michael Clarke survives from the 5-0 whitewash in 2006-07 and even though Hussey's retirement came as a shock, he should be the last established player to move on.
I thought Hussey would carry on for the India tour and the two Ashes series. But it is a good time to go and proves the adage that it is better people ask why you are retiring, rather than why you are not. He will be hard man to replace. He glues that middle order together and adapts to whatever the situation demands. By going now he gives Australia time to bed down the middle order before the Ashes. Starting with the tour to India in February, Australia can build foundations for the future.
This will challenge the depth of Australian cricket. First-class cricket in Australia has always been seen as the strongest in the world and it is important that it is trusted so we can see the depth of talent. The rest of the Sheffield Shield season will be vital because there are so many spots up for grabs. Players need to ramp up their fitness, make sure they are available for selection and grab their opportunity.
I expect they will replace Hussey with a player who has a mixture of experience and youth. Players such as Adam Voges, Dave Hussey, Andrew McDonald and Brad Hodge along with the youngsters Usman Khawaja and Glenn Maxwell have a chance. David Warner, Michael Clarke, Shane Watson and Matthew Wade will be the core of the side while Ed Cowan and Phillip Hughes have to prove they have the technique to play in England against James Anderson, who is at the peak of his powers.
If Australia are to be successful then they have to protect the middle order so they can play with freedom. If Watson and Clarke are at the crease with only 40 or so on the board then it is going to be very tough for Australia. The onus is on the top order to deal with Anderson and Steven Finn. If they can weather the storm and be a bit aggressive the middle order will be able to play with freedom and we will have a great series on our hands.
In terms of fast bowling, Australia have young quicks to hurt England if they can stay fit: Josh Hazlewood, Jackson Bird, Pat Cummins and James Pattinson are serious talents. Ryan Harris is getting back to full fitness and has a great Test record. Add in Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus, Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Johnson, who is rediscovering his form, then Australia have seven or eight bowlers from which to choose the right combination. All of them will do well in English conditions and if they are fit it will be a hell of an Ashes series. The ball will dominate the bat.
The spin bowling department is not as heavily stocked. Nathan Lyon is doing an OK job. He started slowly this Australian summer but has picked up. He will bowl pretty well in England but there is little back up. There could be a bolter as a second spinner. A guy called Brad Young has just returned in the Big Bash. He is a 39-year-old left-arm spinner who last played for Australia in a one-day international in 1999. The Adelaide Strikers have picked him up and you just never know, for 12 months or just one series, he could be the second spinner.
England's only question mark is over the third seam bowler. Ideally they will have Anderson and Finn as their Test new ball bowlers. But Stuart Broad has gone off the boil and Tim Bresnan's form as a bowling all-rounder has tailed off since his elbow injury last year. Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann are in great form. My choice would be to bat Matt Prior at six and Bresnan at seven so they can pick three quicks and fit in the two spinners. To me that is a very well-balanced side. It also has room for manoeuvre if the pitches are damp and seam in England, then Broad comes back into the mix and they go with one spinner.
In terms of leadership Alastair Cook has done a good job as captain so far. England look organised and well drilled. The reintegration of Kevin Pietersen has been smooth and I believe that is down to Cook. We saw when they batted together in India that Cook acts as a calming influence on KP. He has made Kevin feel important and the star player is responding. He looks hungry, and respect is flowing both ways.
Loss of friend Tony Greig will be felt for long
I knew Tony Greig for 20 years and he was a good friend. He was a flamboyant man who spoke his mind and was a great commentator. People forget what a wonderful cricketer he was and every first-class player owes him, Ian Chappell, the Packer family and the West Indies team of the 1970s a debt. They stood up for what they believed in and fought for better working conditions when they established World Series cricket. It will feel strange not hearing Tony's voice during the Ashes series and it hits home that life is short and there to be enjoyed. It is how Tony approached life and cricket.