THE phoney war is nearly over and the genuine hostilities are poised to start in the 2015 Ashes.

Praise be for that! If it hasn't been Sky advertising one of their (few) summer attractions on a wall-to-wall basis during the last month - including Bob Willis dressed up as a judge in a skit which makes The Three Stooges seem like comic geniuses - it has been an endless litany of past and present players discussing whether this latest series will have more or less sledging than previous campaigns and so on, ad nauseam.

We have also been assailed with praise for the "New England" collective, who demonstrated true attacking intent while beating New Zealand in a thrilling ODI series, which seems to have reignited their Ashes hopes, following a hapless World Cup showing and drawn encounters with the West Indies and the Black Caps. Yet, even the most Panglossian soul should realise there is a significant difference between prospering in a limited-overs setting, on small grounds with short boundaries, and maintaining that momentum with the twin Mitchells, Johnson and Starc, running in at full pelt, assisted by a four or five-man slip cordon, with the faintest nick likely to prove fatal.

Yet, whereas Michael Clarke and his colleagues appeared to be odds-on favourites a few weeks ago, there is a sense that the balance has tilted ever so slightly towards the hosts. The bookies have cut their odds on the latter, although they still fancy the baggy-green brigade, but it's difficult to argue that a number of imponderables haven't muddied the waters or that these Ashes might not develop into the best and most closely fought tussle since the marvellous ebb and flow of 2005.

After all, we have two captains, with plenty to prove in this particular milieu. The last time Clarke came to Blighty, he and his team-mates were soundly beaten 3-0 and the so-called "Pup" has reached the stage of his career where the niggling injuries and painful back twinges take longer to heal than they used to do. His counterpart, Alastair Cook, meanwhile, was absent from the Blighty brigade's recent ODI pyrotechnics, which means he has presided over most of the travails which have beset his side since they were whitewashed 5-0 by the Australians two years ago. On their day, both are unquestionably world-class performers, but Johnson will fancy his prospects against Cook, and James Anderson and Stuart Broad will be similarly confident of unsettling and removing Clarke if there is the merest hint of swing or auspicious bowling conditions.

Wherever you look, there are imponderables and what-ifs. In terms of stars, Stephen Smith has been a transcendent performer in the last couple of seasons and has become the ICC's No.1 ranked batsman, which would have seemed laughable when he first entered the Test arena. But, equally, Joe Root, the same individual who toiled to make any significant contribution when these ensembles last met, has subsequently blossomed into a flashing blade who looks as comfortable in Twenty20 as he does in the long form of the game.

Consider, too, the looming battle for supremacy between the respective wicket-keepers, Brad Haddin, who dug his men out of as many holes as a mole on Red Bull in the 2012-13 joust, and Jos Buttler, an individual blessed with some of the roistering hooraymanship of Adam Gilchrist. Or the incessant niggle we can anticipate whenever David Warner and Broad are doing their best to inflict psychological disintegration on the other. Sometimes, over the last 20 or 30 years, the acrimony between these countries has been exaggerated or hyped up, but Warner seems to be about as likeable as the flu in winter, while Broad possesses something of the petulance and curled lip of Harry Potter's nemesis, Draco Malfoy. What can't be denied, though, is that if either or both of these volatile characters hit the ground running, it will be captivating.

It used to be the case that Glenn McGrath would tip the Aussies to triumph 5-0 whenever the Ashes arrived in town. But the fact is that nobody can reach any definitive conclusions before a ball has been bowled. The tourists will miss Ryan Harris, but still have a plethora of pace options, and their biggest concern might be in the spin department, considering how Nathan Lyon has struggled in the early part of his sojourn to Blighty. England, however, are in no better a position, torn between persevering with Moeen Ali or thrusting Adil Rashid into the spotlight. Both nations would kill for a Shane Warne, but sadly, they have nobody with a scintilla of his talents, so we can expect all-out war between two thundering sets of fast bowlers.

So how will it go? Will a Ben Stokes drink deep from the Botham well of inspiration or will he freeze when Johnson, Peter Siddle, Josh Hazlewood and Starc find their radar? Will Warner show us his gifts or his gob and will his swagger prevail over Anderson and Broad? At this stage, one still leans towards forecasting a narrow success for Clarke's company, but, given how both teams have declared they will attack, attack, attack, the chances are this won't finish up 1-0. Instead, 2-1 or 3-2 appears a more probable outcome.

It really can't commence soon enough. And these next six weeks promise to be a bumpy ride. What's not to relish for those of us who love the whole Test arena?