Bayliss must enable his team to play without fear
England's new coach has very little time to prepare for Ashes battle
We are now stuck in phoney-war territory. This happens because an Ashes series remains irresistibly special. There was evidence of this at Canterbury, where there were 6,000 souls each day at the Spitfire Ground, making a little pilgrimage to watch Chris Rogers and Rob Key bat, which is not usually the case.
It is to English cricket's great delight and financial benefit that an Ashes clash continues to matter so much, even though these games currently seem to come around with the frequency of another series of Masterchef. Hence the phoney war, which is seldom in evidence for other series.
This time, the topics have included: the misappropriation of Test-match tickets; sledging; rumours that the Australian tour party is so venerable that they are soon to be sponsored by the makers of mobility scooters; England's decision to have a jolly in Spain ("at least we'll beat 'em at golf"); sledging; five-nil predictions from Glenn McGrath and Ian Botham; Shane Watson's fear of ghosts; the welcome ostracism/malicious expulsion of KP; charismatic ex-spinners casting aspersions on the opposition's best batsmen; and sledging. And dozens of other sagas beyond my imagination. No one should take it too seriously.
In fact, so far, we have had nothing to match the build-up to the 2013 series, when there was the infamous 'fracas' at the Walkabout pub in Birmingham involving David Warner and Joe Root, which led to Warner being omitted from Australia's first Test team. That was reckoned to be a dreadful own goal by Australia, gleefully exploited by the England and Wales Cricket Board's PR machine at the time.
Actually, this incident proved to be a significant landmark for Australian cricket. The Walkabout affair gave Cricket Australia that vital extra bit of leverage to take the decision, an extraordinary one in many ways, to sack their coach, Mickey Arthur, a fortnight before the Test series began and to summon up Darren Lehmann to replace him. From that point on, the graph of Australian cricket has been heading skywards with very few blips, and the ECB's glee at Australia's discomfort has had to be tempered.
This time, another Australian coach, Trevor Bayliss, has less than a fortnight to prepare for an Ashes series, but he is, of course, overseeing England's campaign. His appointment has not been quite so chaotic as Lehmann's, but this remains a remarkable state of affairs. For once, Bayliss will be grateful for Paul Farbrace, his assistant when he was coaching Sri Lanka, to keep talking because he needs to glean as much information about the side he inherits as quickly as possible.
Bayliss heads to Spain this weekend, no doubt having studied the mugshots of his players carefully, and he should discover an England set-up in surprisingly buoyant mood. The recent one-day matches against New Zealand offer a feelgood factor, even though only three or four of the players will be involved in the Test series.
Bayliss knows the Australia team rather better than the English one. He knows their weaknesses, as well as their strengths. This may not make a world of difference. Farbrace had intimate knowledge of the Sri Lankans last summer, as Ottis Gibson did of West Indies this spring, yet England could win neither series. But, for a young side, it will be helpful to demystify some of the grand old names of Australian cricket, and for Bayliss to reassure his new charges that they are vulnerable too.
Bayliss will also seek to use the positive waves generated by much of the New Zealand series, and to enhance the determination to play without fear. That is the way to go against a superior side, which Australia surely are on paper.
The better team can sometimes prevail by playing conservative, error-free cricket (not that this is the Australian way, but it was England's in 2013); the lesser one has to be more dynamic, to challenge their opponents - which is essentially what the England side, led by Michael Vaughan, managed to do in 2005 against Ricky Ponting, Warne, McGrath, Adam Gilchrist and co.
The challenge for Bayliss is to get his players to maintain an aggressive outlook with the bat; to take the game to Nathan Lyon so that they limit the breathing space for the Australian pacemen, who must be compelled to feel old as the series unfolds. Likewise, England need to be combative and disciplined with the ball, as well as finding a trustworthy slip cordon.
All of which is easy to say. It is a tall order for Bayliss - faced with a team he only met this weekend - to convince players that all this can be achieved by the time, to everyone's relief, the teams descend upon Cardiff next week. It is unlikely, but it is possible.
Sunday Indo Sport