James Lawton: Dissenting voices undermine timeless aura of Ponting's ageing Ashes warriors

The belief here is that Warne has only to approach the crease to sow untold panic

At the Plaza Monumental in Madrid they brush the sand with the reverence you would expect before any episode of pride and danger. This week it is pretty much the same here in Brisbane along Vulture Street.

The Gabba is maybe no longer recognisable as the scene of English terror 32 years ago when Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee unleashed a terrible, brilliant fury but in the modern stadium glinting in the early summer sunshine yesterday you could still feel the old chill. Indeed, what you thought you could taste might well have been a reawakened blood lust.

Behind a tight wall of lock-out security the groundsmen were manicuring what is still the "fastest, bounciest" track in Australia. That was the former Australian captain Ian Chappell's assessment at the weekend when he urged the release of the raw pace of young Shaun Tait in an opening assault on the England psyche which the old warrior believes could well establish an unbreakable home advantage over the next few months.

For the moment Chappell's call is one reinforced by a barrage of Australian belief that the Ashes series which opens on Thursday will quickly prove a ritual more than a contest, a repossession not of a gift but a right.

Even in a distinctly strident history of self-belief, the local desire, even insistence, for the avenging of last year's debacle in England is touching daunting levels of the shrill. It is universal and fierce as it relegates all other issues to the margins of debate in a nation which, perhaps not idly, has come to believe itself to possess the best pound-for-pound sports people on earth.

Certainly the varying fortunes of the rugby union and rugby league teams have never been less significant. Even the crisis of Ian Thorpe, so recently a cornerstone of that Australian belief that they can take on the world and thrash it, is only of fleeting interest. The great swimmer's retirement announcement, despite the incentive of millions of dollars worth of sponsorship at the Beijing Olympics, was expected earlier today. But no one was holding their breath. That will await the first explosion of action here on Thursday morning.

Thorpe is suffering a failure of ambition that is being put down to too many years on the world-beating job. In this the contrast with Ricky Ponting's cricketers could hardly be more extreme. Thorpe at 24 is said to be suffering from ennui. Ponting's team, average age 33, declare themselves aflame.

For Andrew Flintoff and his team it means that if the Gabba truly represents the greatest challenge of their careers - and for the captain the extent of the trial can only be deepened by the fact that this is his first Test on Australian soil - it also offers the chance of a psychological riposte that might just be unprecedented in the history of the Ashes. Here, you see, the prospect of an English victory in Brisbane or anywhere else is considered utterly outlandish. You have to put down nine dollars to win two unless you are crazy enough to believe that the Poms can retain the Ashes. You also have to wade through a tide of opinion so loaded against English chances that any success this week will produce a mood swing of astonishing proportions. Vulture Street might just tremble. More likely, Ponting's men might just grow old before our eyes.

That certainly is the possibility, however distant, that all of Australia is currently talking away. Here is one morning's sample...

"Ashes Warning ... Shane to bring back the Flipper! Full bag of Tricks!" This is an Aussie theory that the 37-year-old Warne, not content with taking 40 English wickets at the last attempt, has ransacked the best of his amazing career and has emerged with every weapon employed in the best part of two decades of rampant sorcery. Overkill, perhaps, but also in line with the belief here that Warne has only to approach the delivery crease to sow untold panic in English hearts.

"Tait perfect for Gabba." Chappell's belief, offered to his London newspaper, that Tait can recreate the menace of Lillee and Thomson and shatter what is left of England's self-belief at the first time of asking, was given massive play yesterday. Sober judges see only a minor thrust in the propaganda assault, believing that while Tait is quick and promising, we have been asked to consider different species. Lillee and Thomson were of the ages, Tait might just do damage on the best of his days.

"Fletcher Helping Aussies." The former England captain Mike Atherton's view that the coach Duncan Fletcher's rough (some would say brutal) treatment of the wicketkeeper Chris Read is destructive of team spirit has been eagerly seized upon. Divide and conquer the tottering Poms is the thinking here.

"Out of Order. England is taking the timid option shielding Pietersen at number five." This is an attack on the man the Australians see as the most serious threat to their formal repossession of the Ashes. Despite his century last week, Pietersen is being categorised as vulnerable against quick bowling.

It may be of some comfort to Flintoff's men that for some an unflattering picture last week of the spinner Ashley Giles, accompanied by the headline "How did we lose the Ashes to this lot?" was a reminder of the peak of hysterical aggression mounted by the Australian media three years ago when England's rugby union team faced the local heroes in the World Cup final. Then there was the picture of Martin Johnson and his men pounding the beach beneath the question, "The most boring team in the world?" Can Freddie Flintoff and his men take similar revenge for potential death by a thousand sneers and cuts? You could trawl Australian opinion from dawn to dusk without gleaning a grain of support for the idea, but then again you might just stumble on the view of a certain Len Pascoe.

It is one which in the present climates may impinge on full-scale treason but Pascoe is something more than a random maverick. He played 14 times for Australia and was considered a sure-fire presence in the pace attack before Kerry Packer's World Series cricket changed the face of the national game. Now, rather like the boy who noted the King was naked, he believes that Australian euphoria may just be built on sandy ground. He points out that Australia are likely to go into Thursday's action with just one player under the age of 30, which would make them the oldest team in 80 years with an average age of 33.

"I really feel there is a possibility that we will lose this series," says Pascoe. "If we lose the first two Tests, say, the selectors will have no choice but to tap blokes on the shoulders - guys like Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden and Damien Martyn." Pascoe's picture of doubt is in stark contrast with the the one being painted by Ponting.

The Australian captain says that talk of age is nonsense. His team are primed to produce the performances of their lives. His vision of the Australian summer was bullishly encapsulated in one headline: "The old gang is back and ready to roll: bring on England."

Given the records of men like Ponting, Hayden, Martyn, Langer, Glenn McGrath, and, above all, Warne, it is an assertion that only helps along the flow of Australian confidence. But then the old soldier Pascoe and, maybe unconsciously, the superb swimming coach Don Talbot are voices that may just have an encouraging tone for embattled England.

Talbot was asked about the dilemma of his protégé Thorpe, the most phenomenal swimmer the world has ever seen. It was suggested to him that Thorpe's mood may change and that once again he will be talking about beating the world. "Yes, maybe," said the super coach, "but you know at the highest levels of sport talk doesn't do it. You can talk about what you're going to do all day long but it doesn't matter unless you are able to do it, unless you can still deliver."

Talbot's audience was not as attentive, or as reverential, as it might have been before the onset of Ashes fever. But as they groomed the Gabba in the bright sunshine he raised questions that might yet come to haunt the nation who believe, as never before, that it is their destiny to win. This may be thin encouragement for Flintoff and his troops but for the next 48 hours, at least, they cannot hope for anything more.

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