For 14 months England's Ashes heroes were eager to draw on the vital difference separating them from the once great Australian team they dragged down from the mountain top. It was, they declared, the difference between youth and age, between fresh, bounding talent and the fatigue that, sooner or later, gets into the bones of even the most brilliant of champions. However, on the first day of the new battle for the fabled urn the old men in the green baggy caps offered another definition.
How about, they asked with often brutal force here, the difference between men and boys? How about the gulf made shockingly apparent by the first delivery of a day so loaded with psychological importance that the smallest phrase of body language was being hungrily analysed by the owners of perhaps as many as a thousand binoculars? Steve Harmison, the man who left the Australia captain, Ricky Ponting, writhing in pain at Lord's in the first dramatic exchanges of the last series, sent it down in a state that was little short of outright petrification. The ball bounced beyond the opener Justin Langer and squirted to a dismayed captain, Andrew Flintoff, at second slip.
For England, it was role reversal of the most devastating kind. Flintoff withdrew Harmison, the strike bowler around whom so much English hope had been built these last few weeks, in humiliating haste.
Only two overs were enough for the captain to see that on this day his prime weapon was capable of firing only duds. And Ponting, padded up and watching with narrowed eyes, suspected that maybe the first part of the battle was over scarcely before it had started.
Just in case there was any serious doubt about this, Ponting proceeded to cut it into small pieces with a sustained and surgical mastery of the batting arts. If you are very lucky, from time to time you get to see great sportsmen at the very height of their powers. You get to see Tiger Woods crossing all known barriers to the most improbable success on a golf course. You get to see Muhammad Ali in a ring or Roger Federer on a tennis court. It was more than a little like that watching Ponting moving relentlessly to his 32nd century - and equalling the Australian record of his predecessor, Steve Waugh. At times almost tauntingly, he split the field by the finest of margins. Fifteen fours flowed seamlessly out of watchful defence and in the fleeting Queensland twilight he stood undefeated on 137 - and vindicated in a way rarely seen even in the demanding culture of his nation's sport.
However England responded on the second day, there was no question that Ponting had thrown down a gauntlet so demanding only the warrior character of a Flintoff could be given the breath of a chance of rallying the shell-shocked troops.
While in 2005 the shrewd leadership of Michael Vaughan was an important element in England's recovery from the thrashing at Lord's, there was no question that it was the force of Flintoff's competitive nature - and the sheer scale of his talent - that made England believe the odds could be upset.
Now, on a slender base of experience, Flintoff must be both leader and warrior and if you were English here and contemplating Australia's first-day stranglehold of 346 for 3, with Michael Hussey not out 63 and proving himself a superb acolyte to his inspired captain, the one small torch of light was that the big Lancastrian had never stopped fighting on his most demanding day as a Test captain.
Having jettisoned Harmison, he knew that there was only one man truly equipped to fight back. It was, of course, himself, and the wickets of Matthew Hayden (21) and Justin Langer (82) represented defiant and possibly redeeming work. This retained Flintoff's fighting aura but it did not, unfortunately, obscure the extent of the statement made by his counterpart, Ponting.
The Tasmanian was gracious about the difficulties faced by English bowlers on a Gabba strip that was far more benign than anything promised by Australian propaganda. He even said that Harmison was a fine bowler who might just recover his nerve. But he was much less persuasive when he suggested he had merely performed another day's work at the office, though indeed it was, astonishingly, his 10th century in 15 Tests - a run of Bradmanesque dimensions, which started with the brave 156 that saved the third Test at Old Trafford.
There was no doubt about the truth that lay at the heart of the Australian offensive. It was that the team sneered at as a Dad's Army by the expert polemicist Ian Botham had come to Brisbane prepared to make something of a last stand. In the case of Ponting, who is still three weeks from his 32nd birthday, this could go on for some years, but for veterans such as Langer, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, who was expected to make his first contribution around the time Englishmen at home were first stirring in their beds this morning, the light is surely on the point of fading. First, though, there is this last run at glory and the early evidence was irrefutable. Ponting had spoken for all his men where it mattered most - out on the square.
By comparison, Ashley Giles, who, whatever you think of his claims as a spinner against those of his squad-mate Monty Panesar, had performed manfully in a containing role - and managed to produce enough bounce to dismiss a menacing Damien Martyn - sent out a message almost as dismaying as Harmison's painful disintegration. He said that England were nervous on the drive to The Gabba: "It was a quiet bus. We were all tense." Giles added that this was natural on the first day of an Ashes series.
But natural for whom? Not, plainly, the old boys in the baggy green caps. They will go soon enough but what they seem to be saying here is that it will be in the sweetest of their own time.Reuse content