The phoney war at Edgbaston paused yesterday when Steve Waugh was presented with the new World Championship trophy. But if their right to hold it is undeniable, the truly scary thing as far as England and the rest of the competing pack are concerned was the total lack of triumphalism shown upon receiving it. This Australian side do not just believe they are the best, they know it.
England know it too, which is why captain Nasser Hussain has recently been insisting that results in this Ashes series are not important providing his team can look him in the eye and say they have given their best. But that was before dispiriting injuries forced him into putting a typically brave and upbeat face on the matter.
"It's not ideal and like Australia I would have liked to have named an 11 a few days ago," he said. "Without injuries we could have done that, but we've picked a side that I'm fully behind. This is now my first-choice team and the one to beat Australia. If we keep doing the things we've done in the last 18 months and stay with Australia, we can beat them.
"We have players who've beaten them in the past. It's just a case of doing it every session and winning the little battles regularly."
With players coming and going with alarming regularity, England's team for this opening Test will be finalised this morning after a last look at a pitch which, although dry, is well covered with live grass.
The choice lies between Dominic Cork and the resurrected spinner Ashley Giles, so both Usman Afzaal, at No 7, and Mark Butcher, at No 3, will play. Both Cork and Giles can bat, though, with "scrapper" being England's buzz word of the moment, the Derbyshire captain would best fit the bill unless the ball turns.
Unusually, for a pitch that has proved pace-friendly since 1994, both captains reckon spin could play a part. With recent matches barely creeping into a fourth day, recent history does not support them and, four years ago, England beat Australia after Darren Gough and Andy Caddick, back in tandem again this time, reduced them to 54 for 8 in the first session.
According to Waugh, the opening session of the opening Test is crucial. "If you win the first session, you normally win the first day and with it the first Test," the Australian skipper said. "We fought back after losing it last time but the winner of the opening Test usually decides who wins the series."
Since assuming the captaincy, Waugh believes his side have improved as a result of recognising a poor session when it is under way and doing something about it.
"When we've lost, as we did twice in India, it is usually because we had a bad session," he said. "Discipline, on and off the field, is the key. If we have that, teams will find it hard to beat us as we've got the talent."
Without checking individual genealogies for misdemeanours committed in the 18th century, it is hard to find many faults. The bowling attack, the usual catalyst behind Test match victories, has everything a captain could want, with pace, height, accuracy and a top-class spinner at his disposal.
The batting is almost as accomplished, though the openers Michael Slater and Matthew Hayden may be undercooked enough this summer to offer England's bowlers a chance of reaching the beating heart of the team – the awesome middle order – with the ball still hard. Mind you, with an average of 49.9, Slater's record against England is phenomenal and half of his 14 Test hundreds have come in Ashes matches.
With Ricky Ponting promoted to No 3 in place of the dour Justin Langer – a position the Tasmanian did not fill with glory when he first tried it a few years ago – the strokeplayers begin early. The sheer ability of Waugh M, Waugh S, Damien Martyn and Adam Gilchrist is a spectator's dream and a bowler's nightmare. On fast-scoring grounds such as Edgbaston, Australia could score as many as 350 a day, a rate that makes the draw a virtual impossibility.
If Waugh does have a problem, it is over deciding what to do should he win the toss. Does he unleash the most potent bowling trio in world cricket, or does he bat first, post a big score and let arguably the finest spinner of all time winkle the English batsmen out at his leisure? Either way he and his side will not be reaching for the sleeping pills.
The same cannot be said for Hussain's men, and without Graham Thorpe's reassuring presence players like Michael Atherton and Marcus Trescothick will suddenly become the focus of some unwanted extra attention from the Australian bowlers. If the hastily rearranged middle order is not to be exposed too quickly, England's openers will have to be on song.
In previous Ashes series, McGrath can lay some claim in Atherton being his bunny after dismissing him 13 times in 16 innings. As this will be his last Ashes series, Atherton will want to break the stranglehold, though if the Pigeon (McGrath) don't get you, Dizzy (Jason Gillespie) or Brett Lee probably will.
Having their underdog status increased could help England, who are traditionally well supported at Edgbaston. But, if there are those who may be ready to extend their sympathies, Hussain does not want them.
"There is no greater opportunity for all of us than to play Australia when they are the best side in the world," he said. "This is the biggest test in cricket for all of us.
"If you get stuck in against the Aussies they show you respect and, as long as we show the character we've worked on for the last 18 months, we'll get that respect."Reuse content