England set out to create history on Thursday. Never in modern times have they won the Ashes on four consecutive occasions, never will they have a more glowing opportunity of doing so.
Lord Salisbury was Prime Minister in 1890 when England won for the eighth successive time, led by W G Grace. Alastair Cook, the 40th captain of England in Australia, may care briefly to dwell on one of the Marquess's epigrammatic sayings. "A gram of experience," said his lordship, "is worth a ton of theory."
Forget all the theory, the bluster and baloney of the past three weeks, it is experience in and of Australia that makes England the favourites to win this series. If they can somehow breach Fortress Gabba in the first Test, then anything becomes possible.
That may be the trickiest trick of all to perform. Australia have not lost at the ground for 25 years, and while that cannot be sustained for ever and this team have failed to win any of their last nine Tests, it is not a record they will surrender lightly.
It promises to be feisty at best and ugly at worst. There was little love lost between these teams last summer and Australia could barely disguise their annoyance at England's preparation of pitches, their luck with the Decision Review System and their hard-nosed cricket.
David Warner, one of the most robust of the Australians, could not resist having a dig yesterday at Stuart Broad, who can expect flak from here to Sydney in January – at the suggestion of Australia's coach, Darren Lehmann, after Broad refused to walk at Trent Bridge following a thick edge.
Warner has himself been known to have an exchange of views but he said the fast bowler had got into a "sook". There seemed no evidence for this – a sook being a whinge – but it was all part of the last rites in the phoney war.
There is an assurance about the home squad which belies their woeful recent results and they are clearly trying to engender the feeling that they are about to turn the corner.
Dress it up how they like, however, they lost 3-0 in England only a few weeks ago and Cook's team won almost all the big moments. Sometimes they became big moments only after they had been won but that is another virtue of victors.
Of the team that England would prefer to field here, nine played some part in the overwhelmingly successful campaign here three years ago. The newcomers are Joe Root and Michael Carberry, whose roles could not have been foretold even a fortnight ago.
There remains a doubt about Matt Prior. He fulfilled the four tasks set for him by the medical team in training yesterday but England will take no risks with his torn calf muscle. On the other hand, they will also give him every possible chance to play, rather than select Jonny Bairstow for his debut as a Test wicketkeeper.
Carberry seized the day when England had to field him in Perth at the start of the tour with Cook's back forcing him to withdraw. His success persuaded the management that Root, promoted to open for last summer's Ashes, could move down the order again.
Cook said: "Who knows what would have happened if my back was right at Perth, who knows? Strange things happen, but he's grabbed the opportunity with both hands and he's looked the part at the top of the order, just with the calmness with which he goes about his business."
Still, it is an option that England did not assume they would have to take. The unplanned nature of the arrangement may give Australia cause to think that England's meticulous plotting is not so careful after all.
But look elsewhere. Six of the top seven have made significant Ashes hundreds. They know what they have done and how they did it. England's vulnerabilities are fewer than Australia's.
Perhaps it is from Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell, the middle-order engine room, that England can expect the bulk of their runs. Pietersen sounded yesterday like a man who wanted to go places; Bell has been quietly honing his game and is at the top of it.
A stroke that Bell played the other day in the final warm-up match in Sydney embodied his high style. The rain was imminent, the tourists needed runs urgently to win so Bell struck a six on the up over long-off. It was the stroke of a master.
Australia's order is less accomplished, partly because it is so less experienced. They will take succour both from their bowling attack and from the fact that England have had as much trouble with identifying their third seamer as their No 6 batsman. But Chris Tremlett can take heart from his wonderful contribution here three years ago.
England mucked it up in 1958-59 and in 1982-83 when they had four straight Ashes victories in their sights. There is some scope for that again this time but it ought to have faded by next Monday.Reuse content