If Australians decide to partake in something, they do it properly. Anyone who witnessed the new year's party around Sydney Harbour last night would vouch for that. Another party will begin in the Randwick district of the city tomorrow, celebrating the careers of two of the country's greatest sportsmen. Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath have confirmed their availability and each is determined to leave Test cricket in style.
It may also be the end for Justin Langer, the nuggety Australian opener. Langer's career has not reached the heights of Warne or McGrath's but he has given 15 years of outstanding service, scoring 7,650 runs in 104 Tests. Nobody has been prouder of wearing the "baggy green" than the Western Australian and he is unfortunate that his retirement has been overshadowed by that of two legendary team-mates.
The big question is whether England will turn up. If they do not, Andrew Flintoff will for ever be remembered in the same light as Johnny Douglas, the England captain who led his side to Australia in 1920-21 and got walloped, 5-0.
For Flintoff, memories of the Oval 16 months ago must be a distant dream, such has been the force of his comedown. He could be forgiven for thinking that winning the Ashes in 2005 was the worst thing he could have done. Until then, Australia seemed perfectly happy to win the first three Tests of a series before giving their chums a consolatory win. Now they seem intent on humiliating and burying the Poms. Michael Vaughan, you have a lot to answer for.
"It has been a hard few weeks," said Flintoff, prior to seeing in the new year on a boat in the harbour. "I have felt a bit down after each of the Test matches but there are two ways to go. You can either sit down and wallow in self-pity or get on with it and try to come back stronger. We need six, seven or eight of us performing if we want to beat Australia, not three or four.
"There has been some tough cricket and it is not nice being 4-0 down in the series. We have played all right in patches but Australia have played well and have dominated the series. On each occasion we have applied pressure Australia have come back even stronger at us. Somehow in this last Test we have got to apply pressure and then keep it on by being a bit more ruthless.
"We don't want to leave this country having been beat 5-0. I don't want to be the captain and the team don't want to be the team that get beaten 5-0, so there is still a lot to play for. The side is up for this last Test and each and every one of us feels we have a point to prove and we are keen to do that when the Test starts. A lot of people have come out here to watch us and we want to show them that we can beat Australia. We have to give this game everything we have got."
England have a selection dilemma. The Sydney Cricket Ground helps spinners, and picking a second such bowler would improve the balance of England's side. Jamie Dalrymple replaced Ashley Giles in the squad when a family illness forced the latter to return home, and the Middlesex off-spinner has a first-class double century to his name. If Dalrymple plays he would replace Sajid Mahmood and bat at seven. It would allow Chris Read to bat at eight, a closer reflection of his ability. Stephen Harmison, Monty Panesar and Matthew Hoggard would fill the last three places.
The only problem is that the spinners who do well at Sydney appear to be leg-spinners and Dalrymple's bowling is still in its youthful stage. Warne, inevitably, is the highest wicket-taker at the ground with 62 in 13 Tests, and Stuart MacGill, the Australian leggie who has been overlooked again, closely follows him with53 wickets in eight matches.
Other leg-spinners have shone too. Danish Kaneria took eight wickets for Pakistan two years ago and India's Anil Kumble claimed 12 in 2003-04. Finger spinners - like Dalrymple and Panesar - have had less success. Richard Dawson, an England bowler with a similar first-class record to Dalrymple, took 1 for 113 four years ago.
Mahmood took four wickets at Melbourne but bagged a pair batting at eight, and his place could go to Ed Joyce if England opt for an extra batsman. But whoever plays they will have to contend with Ricky Ponting at his most productive venue. The Australian captain has had the look of a man on a mission ever since England arrived and he is unlikely to show any compassion now.
Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, will reiterate the plans his team have but these are likely to evaporate the moment the side walks out in front of a packed SCG. When each player has a bat or ball in his hand he is on his own and it is how he deals with the occasion that will count.
The greatest responsibility is on England's more experienced players. Andrew Strauss, Flintoff, Harmison, Hoggard and Kevin Pietersen, who was indignant after the Australia coach, John Buchanan, suggested he was not a team player, have to lead the way. Mark Butcher and Vaughan did just that in 2002-03, when England were in exactly the same position, scoring 124 and 183 respectively in a memorable, if consolatory, England win.
And at the Kensington Oval in Barbados in 1993-94, when England were on the verge of a "Blackwash" in the West Indies, Michael Atherton and Alec Stewart set their side on course for victory with an opening partnership of 171 in the Test after England were bowled out for 46 in Trinidad. It can be done - but are this England side up to it?
Probable teams: England: A J Strauss, A N Cook, I R Bell, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, A Flintoff, J W M Dalrymple, C M W Read, S J Harmison, M S Panesar, M J Hoggard.
Australia: J L Langer, M L Hayden, R T Ponting, M E K Hussey, M C Clarke, A Symonds, A C Gilchrist, S K Warne, B Lee, S R Clark, G D McGrath.
TV Times: Sky Sports 1 (11pm tonight).
How Douglas's duffers suffered the first whitewash
The ignominy of only the second 5-0 whitewash in Ashes history being inflicted in Sydney this week would dwarf even that piled on the 1920-21 England side, captained by J W H T "Johnny" Douglas 86 years ago.
Before his final embarrassment, the Australian crowds had taunted Douglas with shouts that his initials meant "Johnny Won't Hit Today". The English media were hardly less kind: Douglas bats "as if losing a competitive stroll with a tortoise", claimed Wisden.
There was also controversy then over the presence of wives on the tour. Douglas had taken along not only his wife but his mother too.
Australia won all five Tests by large margins. The home captain, 20st Warwick Armstrong, even sank two swift gin and tonics to quell malaria symptoms before hitting a century in Melbourne. The final blow came in Sydney.
* The 1920-21 whitewash: first Test - Australia win by 377 runs; second Test - Aus win by an innings and 91 runs; third Test - Aus win by 119 runs; fourth Test - Aus win by 8 wickets; fifth Test - Aus win by 9 wickets.Reuse content