The speculation will end and the action will begin at 5.30pm this evening when England line up against Australia for the first time in the most eagerly awaited Ashes battle for decades. The Twenty20 contest, at the picturesque Rose Bowl ground on the outskirts of Southampton, may be the most irrelevant of the 13 matches Michael Vaughan's side play against their oldest enemy this summer, but it will give an early indication of the progress England have made in the last 15 months, and their chances of regaining the Ashes.
England supporters have been looking forward to the arrival of Ricky Ponting's side since the end of last summer. The stock of Vaughan's excellent team rose considerably when they won in South Africa during the winter, but it was seven consecutive Test match victories over New Zealand and the West Indies, and a one-day win over Australia in the Champions Trophy in 2004 which resulted in talk of this England side becoming the first since 1986/87 to hold the Ashes.
England may have been the first country to play Twenty20 cricket at a professional level but Australia, following their game against New Zealand in February, enter the contest with slightly more experience. Yet in this frantic, action-packed form of the game it should count for very little.
If England were picking a specialist Twenty20 side for tonight's match there would be a case for playing Leicestershire's Darren Maddy. But both teams are working on the principle that their best one-day players are their best one-day players, no matter the length of the game.
And this means England will be looking towards the brutal hitting of Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen to give them the early initiative. These two powerhouses are capable of pulverising bowling attacks and Flintoff's performances in the last two years even led to Ponting contemplating his inclusion in their side.
"The one player we haven't got is a world-class all-rounder in the Andrew Flintoff type of mould," admitted Ponting. " But we haven't had one of those for a long time in Australia and we see Adam Gilchrist as the all-rounder in our side.
"We have been very impressed with what England have achieved in the last year. They have come a long way to become ranked the second best team in the world.
"But I think the experience we have in the side, along with the fact that we have all bases covered gives us the edge over England. Our team is just choc-a-bloc full of very, very good players."
One of these players is Andrew Symonds. The English-born Aussie is the tourists' most experienced Twenty20 player, and it is a game that suits his no-nonsense style of cricket. Symonds is capable of hitting the ball as hard and as far as Flintoff and Pietersen, as Middlesex found out in 2004 when he scored a 34-ball century.
Twenty20 cricket has become a huge success around the world because it is exciting, the games take less than three hours to complete, and it is fun. County cricketers have bought into the spirit of these games, but it will be interesting to see whether a match between these fierce rivals will be played in such a friendly manner.
"We take every game seriously," admitted Ponting. "There are things to be achieved in every game we play before the Test series and we want to start the tour off on a good note."
Vaughan, the England captain, was equally determined to get the serious part of the summer off to a good start. "This is a game against Australia, so we will definitely be playing it seriously," Vaughan said. "It is the first Twenty20 international in this country and we will be going out to enjoy ourselves. But our aim is to win and play some good cricket. Our victory in last year's Champions Trophy gave us a lot of confidence but it is important that individuals play well, get some runs and take some wickets against Australia."
Both teams are injury-free since Steve Harmison passed a fitness test on his ankle yesterday, and arrive full of confidence after successful warm-up matches on Saturday. Australia defeated Leicestershire by 95 runs at Grace Road and England beat Hampshire twice in an afternoon at The Rose Bowl. Darren Gough took a hat-trick, Andrew Strauss scored 85 and Pietersen a quickfire 77 during England's 153-run first victory. Yet Vaughan felt his team could do with some more practice, and a 12-over "beer match" was organised, with Pietersen smashing 46 off just 15 balls to guide England to a one-wicket win.
Hampshire's captain, Shane Warne, had decided to go home and the dressing-room attendant stood as the square leg umpire. Australians, as England are about to find out, do not play social cricket.
l Michael Clarke, the Australian batsman, will be looking to borrow the kit of his team-mates today after his kit bag was stolen on Saturday. Clarke's one-day clothing is replaceable but the loss of his five favourite bats could have an adverse affect on his batting.
Rose Bowl probable teams
n M P Vaughan (c) M E Trescothick, G O Jones, A J Strauss, A Flintoff, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, G J Batty, Kabir Ali, D Gough, S P Jones.
n R T Ponting (c), M L Hayden, A C Gilchrist, D R Martyn, A Symonds, M J Clarke, M E K Hussey, S R Watson, B Lee, M S Kasprowicz, G D McGrath.
15-19 March 1877, Melbourne. Australia won by 45 runs.
AUS 245 (Bannerman 165; Shaw 3-51)
& 104 (Horan 20; Shaw 5-38).
ENG 196 (Jupp 63; Midwinter 5-78)
& 108 (Selby 38; Kendall 7-55).
5 Jan 1971, Melbourne. Australia won by 5 wkts.
ENG 190 (Edrich 82; Mallett 3-34).
AUS 191-5 (Chappell 60; Illingworth 3-50).
18 June 1975, Headingley. Australia won by 4 wkts.
ENG 93 (Denness 27; Gilmour 6-14).
AUS 94-6 (Gilmour 28*; Old 3-29).
11 December 1979, Sydney. England won by 72 runs.
ENG 264-7 (Boycott 105; Lillee 4-56).
AUS 192 (Laughlin 74; Willey 2-18).Reuse content