England dare to dream. Will they rise to the challenge?

Strauss's men have shone on and off the field so far but now the real action begins. Stephen Brenkley expects a titanic tussle
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The Independent Online

At no point in 133 years can England have travelled with such hope. The burden of the past which has stifled the ambition and the life from so many previous teams down the ages has been banished. The air of optimism surrounding these tourists has been matched by the unprecedented gloom accompanying the home side.

If this were to be translated into actions on the pitch when the action finally starts on Thursday the Ashes would be going to only one place. The permanent home of the frail terracotta urn which is the centre of all the fuss is at Lord's and if all goes according to plan in the next six weeks it would again be its rightful as well at its spiritual resting place.

There would be no need for the preposterous stunt which was pulled in this country four years ago when it was suggested (by, of all people, Sir Ian Botham, one of the great Ashes champions, and Sir Richard Branson, who had never mentioned it before and has been distinctly quiet on the issue since) that the most evocative trophy in sport should physically be presented to Australia since they had just won the series. Though best eradicated from the mind, memory suggests they did so 5-0. No need, either, to travel home with tails between legs and promise that next time it will be different.

England's preparation has been so thorough and so free of obstacles and Australia's so confused and clogged with tripping points that it is easy to assume that the teams have exchanged places. It has become easy indeed to assume lots of things about England's imminent march to glory.

Bookmakers who tend to know a thing or two, especially about two-horse races, beg to differ. They might be issuing platitudes on behalf of the tourists ("most popular England team in Australia for a generation," said one the other day) but the odds still resolutely if narrowly favour Australia both for the opening Test at the Gabba and for the series.

England's coach, Andy Flower was also resolute yesterday in declining to join the ra-ra-ra brigade. Flower has not come here to lose but he clearly thought it wise to mention how hard Australia are to beat in their own backyard.

"I think everyone should keep their feet firmly on the floor because we know what's ahead of us," he said. "In the last 20 years at the Gabba, Australia have won 16 and drawn four Tests. That's the sort of history we will be looking to overturn. Those simple figures show you what a powerful unit they are in their own country and there's no getting away from that. I don't like getting drawn into predictions. Ask any of those players who are out there in the middle and those sort of thoughts mean nothing at all."

The most certain thing that can be predicted is that it will not be the whitewash of four years ago when England were outplayed in Brisbane, responded better than anybody dared hope in Adelaide but somehow contrived to lose on the final afternoon, and were then treated as cannon fodder for the rest of the series. On the other hand were Brisbane to go belly-up as it has done in the last five series (they escaped with a draw in 1998, when rain destroyed the final session) then that prospect might be back on the cards.

It is Australia's home record which keeps intruding into any analysis of a likely England victory. They have lost just one of their last 31 home Test series going back 17 years, to South Africa two years ago. Since that defeat to West Indies they have played 99 Test matches at home in all, won 72 and lost only 11. England last won the Ashes here in 1986-87 (a tour, incidentally, which they had started without any hope at all having been abysmal in the preliminary stages) and since then have won a paltry three of the 20 Test matches.

As for Brisbane itself, scene of the opening match for 16 of the last 17 England tours, it is a surprise only that it has not been renamed Fortress Gabba. Opposing teams may have laid (puny) siege to the place but Australia have repelled them mercilessly. The record is yet more outstanding than Flower revered: of those 16 victories seven have been by an innings and the least convincing was by 123 runs.

Against this backdrop, conviction about an England victory could easily decline. But it does not because Australia, for all their strength, determination and pride, have become more vulnerable. The days of their great players have ended and their empire has wilted before our eyes. In recent seasons they have lost to South Africa at home, to Pakistan and India away.

They have always pushed the opposition close but the fact is that they have lost. They no longer possess players who take the game by the scruff of the neck as of right. Mitchell Johnson, the closest they have these days to a talismanic bowler, can produce compelling bursts but equally can be astonishingly poor.

Their batting has not delivered regularly and the selectors dithered about who to play in this match. The veteran Mike Hussey scored a century in the Sheffield Shield match last week – and he needed to, or his career would have gone down the Murray-Darling. Some might call it careful planning by the selectors, others might see it as not having a clue what to do next.

The only significant change in the opposition line-up is the inclusion of the left-arm spinner, Xavier Doherty, who has a first-class bowling average of 48. He is the first slow left-armer to play for Australia since Ray Bright in 1986.

There are so many imponderables, the chief among which is the form and influence of the captains. Ricky Ponting is staring down the barrel of his third Ashes defeat as captain and equally looking to fire the cannon to celebrate his second victory. He looks as lean (and mean) as he can ever have done but he knows that the days of the marquee players have gone. Whatever he does as captain, he has to do with lesser players.

Andrew Strauss is admired and respected as captain, not a combination equally achieved. But like all England captains here he will be perpetually under the pump. It would be useful for his side were he to start well at the Gabba.

If Flower is not one for irrationally talking the team up and doing the opposition down (and how welcome is that) there is also not much overt romance in his soul. To anybody who loves cricket and was raised in England (or Australia) the Ashes holds a special place. Whatever the misdeeds on the field, and there have been plenty, no matter how fierce the rivalry, the lure of the trophy remains magnetic. Truly, there would be no better place to be than Australia in the next six weeks.

"It probably means something slightly different to me because I'm not an Englishmen," said Flower. "But I do realise the importance of it and I'm appreciative of the fact that I'm involved with it and it means a great deal to me because I care a lot for the side and for the reputation of the English cricket team."

The reputation of this England cricket team will be secured forever if they prevail. In anticipating this series for more waking moments than is healthy since the Ashes were regained at The Oval in August last year the balance of judgement has perpetually shifted.

Australia's home invincibility has to be set alongside England's burgeoning belief. Australia's coming back to the pack has to be compared with the fact that England's batting still is not as imposing as they crack it up to be. Australia's fierce resolve is facing a challenge from a rejuvenated England, most of whose players are not scarred by past failure. Australia have three players over 35, England none. Australia have a rookie spinner, England have the best spinner in the world.

So it can go on. If England do not win now, there really is no reason they should ever win again in Australia. The prospect of Branson and Botham summoning the press to let them know of their plans for the urn is too much to bear. Four years ago it provided some sport while England were being pummelled. Not this time.

Who will be the main contributors? Could it be Ian Bell's time? Yes it could. What of Kevin Pietersen? Who knows. Is Ponting too far down the other side of the mountain? Possibly, possibly not. Has Anderson really got swing? Only in Brisbane, where it will count. And Swann, is it all stuff and nonsense? No. Is there an Australian bowler capable of lacing the boots of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath? Yes, but only when they tie them together and fall over.

The mind keeps changing, the heart stays the same – though it takes the odd funny turn at the prospect of what is to come. So much may (or may not) depend on what happens at the Gabba. But if England hold their nerve and Ponting, especially, is not quite the player of yore they will squeak home by a narrow margin. And a narrow margin will do very nicely indeed.