Once before when Australian cricket had a winning glow, mischievous commentators liked to confront visiting Test batsmen with the question: who would you rather face, Dennis Lillee or Jeff Thomson? Some choice, eh? Rather like the choice Basil Fawlty would offer Sybil with her evening cuppa: "Arsenic or thallium, dear?"
Facing Lillee was a mental examination, pure and simple. DK was the master of the subtle challenges: pace change, swing and cut variation, a bouncer here, a glare there, some of it served up with the odd verbal volley. Surviving Lillee was akin to solving a cryptic crossword while being bunkered down in a bomb shelter.
Thommo's break-bone speed was delivered with self-confessed malicious intent. This old batsman's brain, unhelmeted, noted: Lillee can only bamboozle me, Thommo can kill me. In the Thommo era, when a batsman asked for "two legs" the slips would joke that "one of those would be square leg, then" - next to the umpire, where it was safer!
Of course, the flashing message inherent in the enquiry was simply to exaggerate the mountain to be climbed. Fast forward to now, and the question for England's batsmen remained the "same old": who would you rather face, old Glenn McGrath (with a hobbled heel) or older Shane Warne (with a soggy shoulder)? The evidence over two days, when both went for plenty and wicketless until Warne's 47th over, prompted another question: is it quite the Everest it used to be?
England's scrapper Paul Collingwood and the fearless Kevin Pietersen, sharp eye, fleet feet and rubber wrists, offered a batting interrogation of the legendary pair as incisive as The Bill's best good-cop, bad-cop routine. Australian fans, enjoying a diet of carefree shot selection from Ricky Ponting and Co, denigrated England's batting as boring, but they ignore history: the old-fashioned tactic of building a foundation for the bowlers has always been a good one.
Which raises the question of this series, the one the England camp must pose to Australia's batsmen, bearing in mind England must win a Test to retain the Ashes: "Who'd you rather face, Andrew Flintoff or ... ?" It's the "or" that's the worry if England are to manufacture result conditions in Adelaide.
At the toss, the cynics were to the fore, wondering if Australia's most famous conman, Peter Foster, whose name will resonate instantly at No 10 Downing Street if not Lord's, is not awaiting trial in Fiji but is instead sitting in on the England selection panel.
They were trying to fathom England's decision to ignore Monty Panesar. Perhaps it was "a sting", they said, that England were conned when Australia did not even nominate their second leg-spinner, Stuart MacGill, on a drought-dried pitch sure to turn, as it did for Warne before lunch on day one. But it did not assist Michael Clarke at all. Of course, part-timer Clarke, flat not flighty, is no Panesar.
Truth is, England probably engaged in a spot of self-interrogation: who is more likely to get wickets on this dull, sandpapery gripper of a pitch, James Anderson or Monty? Anderson was poor enough in Brisbane to be dropped, but got the nod here on the basis of reverse swing, which in the previous series was England's trump card.
On this pitch, more Edgbaston than Adelaide, swing rather than spin might trigger batting misjudgements. Watching Collingwood play Warne, often right back on his stumps waiting, then flicking for the run, it was clear he had time. Could Panesar really extract more than Warne, whose outside edges weren't carrying to slip?
England's theory is if the pitch is so slow and Anderson can get on song, his reverse swing at speed can be more dangerous than Monty's mystery. If reverse swing is the attack weapon then Ashley Giles will be called on to bowl long, tight, pressure spells. Could Panesar do that?
Sometimes it is easy to be conned by a pitch's history. Adelaide is assessed as helpful to spinners because some very good ones have had success: Ashley Mallett, Tim May and Warne, to name a few. But it's wise to wonder if any have been left-arm orthodox. Panesar might promise plenty, but the truth is his type do not do well in Australia. In the domestic competition only Tasmania field one, and the last to play much for Australia was the ineffective Ray Bright in the Seventies.
Derek Underwood was England's best in the past 30 years and his strike-rates in successive winning Ashes series were: 1968 in England, 63 balls a wicket; 1971 in Australia, 97 balls a wicket. If more proof is needed, the two who followed him Down Under, Philippe-Henri Edmonds and Phil Tufnell, are remembered only for eccentricity.Reuse content