In the momentous Test match that begins at The Oval today English cricket has much to gain and much more to lose. Should England prevail and reclaim the Ashes a nation will rejoice and ought immediately to ensure that the triumph will not be squandered on the altar to be found on the upper floor of a double decker bus travelling to Trafalgar Square.
If they lose to Australia, as can be anticipated, and lose badly, as must be feared, the team and the game will suffer a setback from which both may take years to recover. The game will survive because it always has, but defeat at home in Test series over three consecutive seasons – to India in 2007, to South Africa in 2008 and now to Australia – would be a bitter blow. The England team has always been central to the sport's status but it has become something more as the brand that markets the game.
There is no doubt that the team led by Andrew Strauss can win the fifth Test to take the series 2-1 (the same score as in 2005, which sent the country into paroxysms of ecstasy) and their protestations that they tend to have a habit of coming back after poor performances are not entirely fanciful. It has already occurred in this series as England demonstrated at Lord's after narrowly escaping from Cardiff with a draw.
They can only hope – and their sleepless nights may have been interspersed with prayers – that the return of Andrew Flintoff for the last time in Test cricket will inspire them one more time. Strauss certainly thought so yesterday. "For a big game like this it is a massive plus to have him in the side," said England's captain. "It's kind of the perfect storm. He's going to be completely motivated to go out on a high – a must-win Ashes Test, at home, full house. The script is written perfectly and that's really encouraging."
Strauss rebuffed the notion that the relationship between captain and star player was strained. "I totally disagree with that," he said. "I spoke to Freddie after the Headingley Test, we both know where each other stood on that matter and some of the stuff that has been said has been quite a long way off the mark. He can lift others but we won't win the game just with his performances. We need all 11 of us to stand up and be counted."
So they do and so far in this series that is where England have been found wanting. The statistics tell no lies. Five of the six leading run scorers are Australian and the three leading wicket-takers hail from the same place.
But this, as their estimable captain, Ricky Ponting, is aware, counts for nought after the coin is tossed this morning. Batting first is important – if only because the players believe it to be so – but it will matter not a jot if England respond to that good fortune as they did at Leeds. Equally, if they were to bowl first and prise out a couple of Aussies with the new ball under indifferent skies then anything may be possible.
As Ponting said when asked yesterday to compare this to 2005: "It's a long time ago. I'm extremely excited about this match and have been since the end of the Headingley Test. As a team we are excited and feel that things are going really well for us.
"But it's also important that we put Leeds behind us. We can't just expect that things will flow on – we have to make it happen again."
Assuming Flintoff's fitness, England will make at least two changes. The champion all-rounder will be joined by the debutant middle-order batsman Jonathan Trott, whom it was confirmed yesterday will bat at number five with Ian Bell at three and Paul Collingwood at four. It looks a messy, if essential, compromise so late in the day.
No one wishes Trott ill but his selection – on merit – is a reflection, perhaps an indictment of the ills at the heart of the professional game in England that Ashes victory alone will not cure. He was born and bred in South Africa and belatedly nailed his colours to England's mast. Like Kevin Pietersen, who England have missed grievously, he is not by any stretch of the imagination a product of the English system. But can England win? Their captain was hardly about to be pessimistic.
"I'm absolutely certain we are going to come out and play well this week. I've got no doubt about it," he said. "The crowd will get behind us, there is going to be fantastic support for us and the guys are going to go out there in the right frame of mind and enjoy their cricket. We need to hit the ground running but I'm confident we can cause some real troubles on this wicket." The nation may hope, but it is not yet confident.
Pitch report, teams, TV and weather for the final Ashes Test
Pitch report Expected to be a typical Kennington surface, with some pace and bounce giving cause for optimism for both batsman and bowlers.
Television times Sky Sports 1, HD1, 10.00-19.00 Highlights Five, 19.15-20.00.
Weather report Today: Light rain showers, partly cloudy. Max temp: 24C. Tomorrow: Sunny morning, rain in afternoon. Max temp: 23C. Saturday: Sunny intervals with possible rain. Max temp: 23C. Sunday: Partly cloudy with Sunny intervals. Max temp: 25C. Monday: Chance of rain, partly cloudy all day. Max temp: 2C.
England (probable): A J Strauss (capt), J M Anderson, I R Bell, S C J Broad, P D Collingwood, A N Cook, A Flintoff, S J Harmison, M J Prior (w), G P Swann, J L Trott.
Australia (probable): R T Ponting (capt), M J Clarke, S R Clark, B J Haddin (w), B W Hilfenhaus, M E K Hussey, M G Johnson, S M Katich, M J North, P M Siddle, S R Watson.
Umpires: B Bowden (NZ) & A Rauf (Pak).