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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 July, 2005, 13:50 GMT 14:50 UK
Jonathan Agnew column
Jonathan Agnew
By Jonathan Agnew
BBC cricket correspondent

Finally, after months of speculation and anticipation, the talking can stop and the battle for cricket's most treasured prize can begin.

We know the facts, that England have not beaten Australia at Lord's for 71 years and that Australia have won their last eight Test series.

But none of that will matter one iota when the first ball is bowled at 1030 on Thursday.

England pace bowler Stephen Harmison
Harmison is England's most potent bowler and I've no doubt the Australians rate him very highly

Michael Vaughan is right to dismiss Australia's record here as irrelevant. It is hardly the fault of his players that Australia have been so dominant and it is a convenient way for him to draw a line in the sand.

He will lead a team that contains five men who have never played a Test against Australia before and, after some encouraging performances in the NatWest matches, a band of players who do not fear the prospect of facing Australia.

That is an enormous psychological barrier to have erased.

Cricketers of my generation were genuinely fazed by the all-conquering West Indians of that era, and it took many years before that was finally overcome.

Vaughan's team has won their last five series and they are justifiably rated as the second best in the world.

Therefore, just as the second-best heavyweight boxer gets his crack at the champion, England are fully entitled to line up with confidence.

There are some key areas that will probably decide the destiny of the Ashes.

The battle between Glenn McGrath - who needs just one victim to claim 500 wickets in Test cricket - and England's openers will be crucial.

He will probe away at the off stump time and again, aiming to exploit any frailty in their techniques.

With an inexperienced middle order behind them, Trescothick and Strauss must not allow the Australians to make early inroads.

Australian spinner Shane Warne gives the thumbs up during practice
Warne will play the leading role in the plan to counter Flintoff

It will be fascinating to see how Andrew Flintoff approaches his first innings against Australia.

I expect Shane Warne to play the leading role in Ricky Ponting's game plan against him, with Warne bowling round the wicket and aiming to frustrate Flintoff.

There will be men around the bat and two in the deep for the big shots, and I wonder how long Flintoff will be able to restrain himself.

Steve Harmison is England's most potent bowler and I have little doubt that the Australians rate him very highly.

He needs to break the highly successful opening partnership of Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden, who will probably target what they believe is a fragile temperament.

We could be in for a wonderful spectacle as a result - and I can't wait to see Kevin Pietersen taking on Brett Lee.

It was a gamble by the selectors to choose Pietersen so early, but if he gets in he has more than enough confidence and shots in his armoury to change the course of a match in a single session.


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