Captains key to destiny of urn as greatest series swings into life

The first problem for Strauss or Ponting will be to bat or bowl should they win the toss
  • @stephenbrenkley

For Andrew Strauss the moment is nigh. He will walk out tomorrow at the ground with the oddest name in cricket – the Woolloongabba – and hope against hope that it is the start of a march to glory. But he will know he will have the not insignificant obstacle of Ricky Ponting in his path. "This is our turf," as the Australia captain boldly declared yesterday.

Soon after Strauss steps on to the Brisbane pitch the Ashes series of 2010-11 will begin. It has been a long time coming and the days of profound anticipation, which alone demonstrate why this greatest of series remains untouchable, will be done.

The toss may present Strauss with the first conundrum in a campaign that will throw up constant difficulties. If he wins it, dare he bowl? And if he bats, as he probably should, could a sporting pitch play into the opposition's hands? His only consolation in the moment that the coin is going through the air is that his counterpart, Ricky Ponting, will be faced with exactly the same dilemma.

The series of five matches may depend largely on individual deeds. But the influence of the captains will be substantial. Strauss is seeking to join a shortlist of men who have led England to Ashes triumph here – in the past 60 years that includes Len Hutton, Ray Illingworth, Mike Brearley and Mike Gatting, two men of Yorkshire and two of Middlesex. Strauss is of Middlesex.

Ponting is seeking to avenge the defeat in England last year and to avoid the indignity, which objectively speaking he does not deserve, of being the only Australian captain to lose the Ashes three times.

The atmosphere throughout Brisbane, doubtless assisted by the sudden invasion of thousands upon thousands of English supporters, is tense. This series, awaited since the final ball of the last one was bowled, needs some cricket.

It might be assumed that the occasion should be one for a last rousing call to arms by these two leaders. There will be no such thing.

"The speech before the first day of the last Ashes series was one of the least important things I had to do in the whole series," Strauss said yesterday. "Guys are ready to go, you don't need any inspirational, Churchillian words, they are ready and it is important if anything, that you are calming them down rather than rousing them at that stage."

Ponting, like Strauss, was deadly relaxed. He was like this four years ago when he had the Ashes to regain and led Australia to a 5-0 victory. But then he had a team of legends and now he has a side of journeymen. It would be a considerable triumph, no matter Australia's formidable home record. But then it would be formidable whoever prevails, such are the narrow margins, such is the noble tradition with which this trophy is invested.

Ponting does not do romance, he is much too hard-nosed a professional. But he knows what the Ashes mean. "These sort of series are the ones you play for, no doubt about it," he said. And it counts that he is trying to win back the Ashes in Australia. "Absolutely, this is our turf. Especially here in Brisbane. We play great Test cricket here and we have for a long time. It's never been about revenge – revenge is a pretty strong word. It's about us getting back to playing the level of cricket we're capable of." It's about revenge.

"The side has had its ups and downs in the last couple of years, which always brings up new challenges for the group. I've always enjoyed the challenges of trying to bring through younger players into very good international cricketers. There are numerous challenges out there and I think we'll meet most of them in the next few weeks."

Both men have had their travails lately. Ponting, sensing at nearly 36 years old that the light will have to dwindle some time soon, has not made a hundred for 23 innings. He made three seventies in India recently, good but not good enough to preclude questions about why he did not turn them into hundreds. Strauss has been similarly barren of centuries. His last was against Australia at Lord's last year. For England to prevail, Strauss simply has to do better. If Ponting cannot show his team the way – and the side's most reliable batsman of recent times, Michael Clarke, is still an uncertain starter – then he may be sliding down the other side more quickly than he thinks.

England have not won in this country for 23 years, Australia have lost only once here in 17. There is hardly a fag paper between the teams from one to 11 and anybody looking for matchwinners is taking a punt. Mitchell Johnson could lose a match as easily as win one; Graeme Swann is the world's No 1 spinner by right, but how he reacts when Australia come slugging at him will tell a big story.

The Brisbane pitch, on which Australia have not lost for 21 Tests, looked deceptively green yesterday. But bowling first cannot be a realistic option given the history. Ponting has not put in the opposition since the 2005 Test at Edgbaston, which Australia eventually lost by two runs. On 29 occasions since, he has won the toss and on all 29 he has batted.

"One thing I know about Test cricket is that, no matter what total you are chasing in the last innings, it is always hard to do," he said. "Scoreboard pressure always has a big say in run chases. The thing about batting first is that you inevitably get the chance to bat on the wicket when it is at its absolute best."

Strauss will be deeply reluctant to bowl, given the fate of two previous England captains here who did so. Hutton's team in 1954 conceded 601 and Nasser Hussain's, in 2001, 492. Could he bowl first? "If we think it is the best way of winning the game, yes, you can't be scared of making those decisions but have to see what the pitch is like on Thursday morning," he said. He spoke as if he knew.

Perhaps the toss will be unimportant. It is what happens afterwards that counts. The first session of the first morning at The Gabba will not determine the destiny of the Ashes but it will point the way.

Teams, TV times and tosses: The Gabba details


Australia (probable): R T Ponting (capt), S R Watson, S M Katich, M J Clarke, M E K Hussey, M J North, B J Haddin (wkt), M G Johnson, X J Doherty, D E Bollinger, B W Hilfenhaus.

England (probable): A J Strauss (capt), A N Cook, I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, I R Bell, M J Prior (wkt), S C J Broad, G P Swann, J M Anderson, S T Finn.

Umpires A Dar (Pak) & B Doctrove (WI).

Pitch report A green tinge that will help the bowlers but that will soon disappear leaving a good batting surface.

Weather Scattered showers. Max temp: 27C.

TV Sky Sports 1, HD1, 11.30pm-5am.

Odds Australia: 5-6 England: 7-4 Draw: 9-2 (Betfred).

Gabba Statistics

Highest total: Australia: 645 in 1946; England: 464 in 1970.

Lowest totals: Australia: 58 in 1936; England: 79 in 2002.

Highest individual score: Australia: 207, Keith Stackpole (1970); England: 138, Ian Botham (1986).

Best bowling (innings): Australia: 8 for 71, Shane Warne (1994). England: 6 for 41, Bill Voce (1936).

Toss wins

Australia: 14 (batted 11, bowled three – seven wins, three defeats).

England: 4 (batted two, bowled two – one win, three defeats).

Target of 280? If England score over 280 in their first innings, results suggest that they will avoid defeat. Of the tourists' 10 defeats in Brisbane, nine came when they posted no more than 265 in their first innings. The other was in 2002-03, when they scored 325 but still lost by 384 runs.

Countdown to the Ashes

1 The number of times since the 1978-79 tour that the highest runscorer in an Ashes series in Australia has been English. Michael Vaughan scored a total of 633 runs in 2002-03, at an average of 63.30. Despite this, England lost the series 4-1.