England are five days away from regaining the Ashes. It was the solitary salient fact that remained unalterable until late yesterday when precious little else had been clear and it is the single issue that will drive the penultimate match of the series which starts in Leeds today.
Both sets of players are well aware what is at stake, both must try at all costs not to be distracted. For England that became more difficult as the evening wore on when it began to emerge that their warrior all-rounder Andrew Flintoff would be out of the match. That could still not alter the feeling that they can almost touch the trophy, while Australia must sense that it is about to be grasped away.
"We have talked about it but we're not going to dwell on it because sometimes the closer you are to something the harder it is to achieve it," said the England captain Andrew Strauss. "From our point of view we will only achieve that by putting the Australian team under a lot of pressure and we will only achieve that by starting the game well so it's one step at a time."
His Australian counterpart, Ricky Ponting said: "I have total confidence in all our players and I'm sure we can bring out our best cricket. The first match was the biggest game a lot of the players have played. This is a must-win game for us and hopefully we can get five good days' Test cricket and play our best. There's no such thing as trying to get back for 2005. We just want to win this series."
Neither of the combatants was completely certain last night which 11 players would take the field. England's anxieties, as ever, were focussed on the fitness of Flintoff but they seemed to have decided at last that he would be too big a risk. However, there was a growing suspicion fuelled by the feeling that they ought to take a bold step, that Stephen Harmison, their rejuvenated fast bowler, would play in any event.
Australia, perhaps sensing that they need to make a change, were wrestling with permutations most of which involved whether they could play Brett Lee for the first time in this series, eight months and several injuries since he played the most recent of his 76 Test matches.
The pastime of Flintoff watching was at its usual pre-match peak yesterday. Observers had to assess the depth of the bandages swathed round his right knee (deep but no deeper than before the match at Birmingham last week) and the speed and intent of his bowling in the nets (purposeful but not at full tilt and bathed in concern).
Strauss offered no definitive clue about whether Flintoff would play but he was clearly prepared to take the field in his absence. There was just enough evidence – though Sherlock Holmes would not consider it as sufficient for a persuasive denouement – to suppose that England would not pick a defensive team. They have pitched up in Leeds to win the Ashes, not to try to consolidate and bet the farm on the last match at the Oval.
"As a general point of view we have got two Test matches to go and we need to win one of them," Strauss said. "Drawing Test matches is the last thing on our minds and will continue to be right through to the end of the Oval Test. In a way that's quite a liberating frame of mind to be in, for this Test in particular. A win here and it's all over so it's not very difficult to be in a positive frame of mind." As far as the captains were concerned all the players in the squads were available and being considered, notwithstanding the state of Flintoff's knee. "It's not an ideal situation but that is the situation we're in," said Strauss. "If Fred is fit to play a full part in the game we desperately want him to play. If he's not fit to play a full part it's wrong of us to pick him." Strauss simply could not say and he had instructed everybody from the squad newcomer Jonathan Trott up to prepare to play.
Regardless of Flintoff, England, if they are serious about winning, will play five bowlers. The pitches at Headingley this season have been flat but not especially high-scoring. In two of the four matches, neither side made more than 300 and all but one have finished in draws.
Flintoff's probable enforced omission will possibly save the place of Stuart Broad. Harmison was impressive again in the nets yesterday and he took 5 for 60 for Durham in Yorkshire's first innings in a Championship match last month. Harmison's name should have been on the team sheet in any case.
Australia have yet to take 20 wickets and with the present quartet of bowlers the likelihood that they will do so is not great. Lee and Stuart Clark are the men in contention and neither has an unanswerable case.
The fact that Trott, born in South Africa and who played for that country's Under 19s is in the England squad is an indictment of the academy system and its failure to produce players deemed good enough for international cricket. If Trott plays today, however, it would also be an indictment of England's strategy. They would be hoping simply to cling on to what they have, and that is no way to achieve their dreams.
Fourth Test: Weather, TV and teams
Weather report Chance of showers in morning; mainly cloudy with sunny spells in afternoon. Max temp 20C.
Pitch report Will favour batting. Ball could swing, but it not may need more than five bowlers to take the 20 wickets.
Cheeky flutter Both teams to bat on the first day; 4-1 (sportingbet)
Stephen Brenkley's possible teams
England: A J Strauss (c), A N Cook, R S Bopara, I R Bell, P D Collingwood, M J Prior (w), S C J Broad, G P Swann, J M Anderson, S J Harmison, G Onions
Australia: S R Watson, S M Katich, R Ponting (c), D J Hussey, M J Clarke, M J North, B J Haddin (w), N M Hauritz, B W Hilfenhaus, M G Johnson, P M Siddle
Umpires: B F Bowden (New Zealand) & A Rauf (Pakistan)
TV times 10.00-19.00, Sky Sports 1, HD1. Highlights 19.15-20.00, FiveReuse content