Australia are rattled. Torn between last year's team and next year's team, they are searching for the way forward and the clock is ticking. Yesterday was fine, tomorrow beckons; today is the headache. The side for the 2013 series is easier to choose than the line-up for the SCG Test six weeks hence. For the first time since 1986-87 a series played on Antipodean soil is England's to lose.
Defeat at the Gabba might prove fatal for the Australians. A loss could herald the end of several careers. Mike Hussey, Marcus North hang by a thread; Nathan Hauritz has already gone. The leadership is under pressure. Ricky Ponting cannot survive a third Ashes loss and Michael Clarke has a sore back and a tattered image. Mitchell Johnson, the supposed strike bowler, has resembled an inebriated archer.
Injuries, poor form, age, lack of ability and poor results have hampered the hosts. An alarmed debate has ensued. England have hardly been mentioned. A community spoilt by powerful teams and charismatic players finds itself dealing with cricketers of limited ability and struggling sides. Prince and pauper have exchanged clothes.
To make matters worse the Australians have endured a harmful preparation, with one-day matches in India, more one-day contests against Sri Lanka and then a ridiculous and premature team announcement. Unsurprisingly the selectors parodied the occasion by naming not so much a squad as a battalion. The message was clear. They'd name the side when they were ready. Previously Merv Hughes had been sacked as selector. Underneath his moustache and blue singlet, Hughes is a thoughtful and sensitive man. Unlike other selectors, too, he had no conflict of interest. Not that cricket worries about trifles like that. His dismissal added to the picture of a community in disarray.
To make matters even worse, groundsmen prepared green tops for the last round of matches, in one case intentionally, and batsmen desperate to find form were left groping around like a drunkard seeking a keyhole. Modern batsmen can attack better than previous generations but cannot defend half as well. Every passing day, every passing hour, brought news that another blow had been suffered.
Meanwhile all has been serene in the visiting camp. England could have named their side two months ago. Wisely, too, the tourists rejected past prejudices and decided to enjoy themselves. To their astonishment they have been warmly received. No one hereabouts any longer talks about "whinging Poms". It's not been true for decades.
If anything the visitors are popular. Certainly they are more recognisable than the hosts. None of the locals captures the imagination. Surrounded by media advisers monitoring every word, medical men counting every delivery, they seem lacklustre. In contrast Kevin Pietersen Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad stand out. Ponting's side garners support because it represents the nation not because the players are popular. Australia is not its cricket team, or its newspapers.
England's chance has come and they must take it. A generation of Australians have only seen them getting thumped. Contests against India and South Africa have been vastly superior. Accordingly the Ashes is more avidly followed in the old dart than in the Antipodes. These Tests are not sold out. Remove the bluster and it's fourth against fifth. And the game is in trouble in Australia. Andrew Strauss and chums need to change all that.
Doubtless the tourists are amazed and delighted by the state of affairs. What can go wrong? Plenty. On Sunday the selectors announced their real squad and now the battle can begin in earnest. Moreover the Australians hardy ever lose at the Gabba. Indeed they have lost only one series at home since 1993, and that was against a South Africa side that came back from the dead more times than Lazarus.
Nor are England invincible. Swing and off-spin are not always effective Down Under and the batting can look shaky on harder surfaces. And the mood of a series can change in a session. Perhaps, too, England are not quite as good or the hosts quite as bad as they have seemed in the last fortnight. Strauss's side is ambitious, Ponting's is desperate. England expects, Australia fears. At every level – technical, historical, cultural, psychological and sociological – it's going to be interesting.