Chris Tremlett: Ben Stokes is the England player who Australia fear
Unfortunately, England do not take great form in Test cricket into their Ashes series against Australia, which begins in Brisbane on Tuesday night.
Of their 12 Test matches so far this year, Joe Root’s men have won four, drawn two and lost six. It has been a story of inconsistency.
But they do have one factor in their favour that can bring hope to them and all of us watching from home: the return of Ben Stokes.
Before Stokes made himself available again in October following finger surgery and some time off for his mental wellbeing, I didn’t give England much chance of winning the Ashes.
But his mere presence gives the series a completely different complexion. He can bat anywhere in the order and brings a better balance to the England team.
More than that, though, England seem to step up and raise their game when Stokes is around.
Australia, meanwhile, will always fear him after what he did to them at Headingley in 2019, when his heroic 135 not out kept the hosts in the series.
Whether he is only 80 per cent fit or in prime condition, it’s just great to have the all-rounder there in Australia.
He is also a valuable extra bowler; having someone else who can bowl a few overs can make a big difference.
England players can make name for themselves in Ashes
Mark Wood has a bit of X-factor and Ollie Robinson has done well in English conditions, but on the whole the bowling attack looks a bit samey.
If the Aussies can dig in and get through the new ball then they could find the going easy, especially on flat pitches.
On the other hand, if the expected wet conditions arrive in Brisbane this week then it could play into English hands, as it did when we won there in 2010-11.
Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad are getting on a bit, and if you’d said to me a couple of years ago that they’d still be in the team now I’d have been amazed. But hopefully they can deliver like they have at times before.
In the first Test of the 2013-14 series Broad took four early wickets to reduce Australia to 132-6. Although England ultimately lost it gave them hope, so hopefully he and Anderson can remove David Warner and Steve Smith early this time.
England’s batting line-up has been unsettled and looks fragile, with no one other than Root averaging above 40 in Test cricket.
Not many have cemented a place, so there is a chance to put their hand up and make a name for themselves.
I know from personal experience that if you do well in an Ashes series then it is remembered for a long time.
Captain change is blow to Australia plans
Australia are the favourites and home advantage goes a long way, although they are not that settled a side either.
They have good bowlers in new captain Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood and their batting is still decent, especially in Aussie conditions.
The late change, forced by Tim Paine stepping down over text messages sent a few years ago, has to have affected their preparations a bit, though.
Paine was captain for a while and you get used to a certain way of preparing for matches. It’s not a huge thing but it’s not nothing either.
A new skipper brings a different dynamic, and a fast-bowler like Cummins leading the team is not something you see very often.
I suspect we may see him lean quite heavily on Smith as vice-captain, not least in setting fields.
Paine and some of the set-up have taken stick over this episode. I do find it a bit strange that the issue has resurfaced now, and maybe it’s a bit unfair.
But it means there will be whispers about it at the start of the series, and it’s something Australia will want to put to bed quickly with their performances.
English cricket has had its own off-field issues to deal with, such as the racism scandal at Yorkshire.
We have seen some of the players, and especially Root, asked for their thoughts about it in recent weeks.
But I think it is more of an issue back home than for the England team in Australia, in a completely different time zone.
The Ashes squad will be trying not to consume too much of what the media is discussing and get their game heads on.
The focus will be on cricket and I don’t expect controversies at home to distract them or affect their preparations too much before the toss at the Gabba.