The moment has come sooner than expected. But tomorrow, England are playing for the Ashes. They are doing their damnedest not to think about that or the apparent disarray of Australia, opponents who have mislaid their lustre in a morass of selectorial confusion.
There is, however, simply no escape from the fact. Win the third Test match at the Waca and England will retain the urn. All the form is firmly with the tourists. They will make one enforced change to their side because of the abdominal injury suffered by Stuart Broad – an amendment which could yet have a significant bearing – while Australia may make up to four alterations to the side that was so roundly defeated in the second Test in Adelaide last week and has made the early conclusion to the contest possible.
England can never have had a better opportunity of ensuring they retain the prize so soon, but they ought to be prepared for a dog fight on a pitch that most experts seem to consider will hark back to its days of yore. Pitch reading generally is akin to astrology as a science but all the star signs in this case seem to say the same thing.
It is pretty clear what Australia's captain, Ricky Ponting, intends. If he is to go down, he will do so trying to give his opponents a pounding. In essence, Ponting is plotting a good old-fashioned bumper war.
"This is a place where looking at history, England have never really played that well," he said yesterday. "I think a few things which we did at Adelaide, the use of the short ball, we can probably exploit that a bit better here than we did last week. We have a few things we'll change and test them out differently to how they have been in the series.
"When it is at its fastest and bounciest, this wicket is so much different to anywhere else in the world. Probably the only other wicket like it is the Wanderers, which is quick and bouncy. Interestingly enough, I've had a look at some of the footage from the game there last year with the use of the short ball more than anything in that game. Morkel and Steyn used it particularly well."
Indeed they did. Ponting was being mischievous and he knew it, but in Johannesburg less than a year ago, Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn bowled like the wind with 14 wickets between them to send England crashing to an innings defeat. They did not always bowl short but when they did they were wonderfully potent.
In his usual phlegmatic fashion, Andrew Strauss dealt with Ponting's menacing words almost insouciantly. "If they do come at us with the short stuff then we've got to be ready for it," he said. "They bowled a bit of short stuff to Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen at Adelaide so we've got to be prepared for that. I think the crucial thing is not to be surprised by anything on the day so preparation has to be about being ready for anything, and we will be."
But Strauss is becoming a shrewd operator in the matter of what might or might not happen in Test matches, and what opponents might or might not do. The feeling this week is slightly redolent of what it was like just before the series started in Brisbane because of what, so suddenly and so much sooner than anticipated, is at stake over the next few days. Strauss questioned, every bit as cheekily as Ponting, what Australia had done so far.
"I don't know," he said. "Australia would have gone and looked at their plans for our batsmen having spent a lot of time in the field against us. They will be wondering whether they've gone about things right so far.
"They may go the same route, or they may look at things slightly differently, we've got to be ready for both. The most important thing is about adapting well to the conditions here, which will be a challenge because they are different to Adelaide."
Australia have tried to lighten their mood in their training in the past two days, so that what looked like a team that was unstructured was just a bunch of players having fun and enjoying their work. Ponting said the younger players introduced to the side had brought a sense of energy.
Indeed, Steve Smith, the 21-year-old batsman and leg spinner, said he had been asked to inject some fun into the side. "It's about having energy in the field and making sure I'm having fun and that everybody else around is having fun," he said, "whether it's telling a joke or something like that in the field. It's to make sure that we're all upbeat and ready to go."
The idea of Australians larking about in the field and telling jokes that are not aimed directly at undermining English psyches seems to suggest that the world is spinning on a different axis. But then that feeling has been prevalent in this country these past few weeks.
England are likely to bring in Chris Tremlett for Broad and are sanguine about the inclusion of Jimmy Anderson after making two long-haul flights – to England and back – for the birth of his second child, Ruby. Anderson looked relaxed and happy yesterday, an advertisement for modern aviation. But it will be tomorrow (perhaps preferably Friday) that the truth will be evident.
Ponting does not think he is coming to the end of the road as captain. But he must recognise that by Monday he could be teetering over its very edge. They have to find a way to play better and from the outside, although the light in Western Australia is as pure and clean as anywhere on the planet, it looks as though they are whistling in the dark.
The tourists are striving not to get ahead of themselves. "We all know what is ahead of us and this is going to be five days of tough Test cricket with Australia coming at us very hard – I've got no doubt about that. They are a proud cricketing nation and they wouldn't have liked the way they were beaten in Adelaide. We're expecting a bit of a backlash from them and we've got to be strong enough to withstand that and come out the other side." On the other side is the land of milk and honey reserved for Ashes winners.
Teams, TV times and the toss Waca details
Australia (probable): R T Ponting (capt), S R Watson, P J Hughes, M J Clarke, M E K Hussey, S P D Smith, B J Haddin (wkt), M G Johnson, M A Beer, R J Harris, B W Hilfenhaus.
England (probable): A J Strauss (capt), A N Cook, I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, I R Bell, M J Prior (wkt), G P Swann, J M Anderson, C T Tremlett, S T Finn.
Umpires M Erasmus (SA) & B Doctrove (WI)
A hard, flat surface will favour the quicks early on before cracking open in the latter stages. Unlike recent Waca pitches, it will provide trampoline-like bounce that will favour the taller bowlers.
Mostly sunny. Max temp: 33C.
Tonight: Sky Sports 1, HD1, from 2am.
Australia: 7-4 England: 13-8 Draw: 9-4 (Bet365).
The Waca Statistics
Highest totals: Australia: 527 for 5 dec in 2006; England: 592 for 8 dec in 1986.
Lowest totals: Australia: 161 in 1978; England: 112 in 1998.
Highest individual score: Australia: 171, Ian Redpath (1970); England: 162, Chris Broad (1986).
Best bowling (innings): Australia: 8 for 97, Craig McDermott (1991); England: 6 for 78, Ian Botham (1979).
Toss wins: Australia: 7 (batted two, bowled five - four wins, one defeat, two draws). England: 4 (batted three, bowled one -no wins, three defeats, one draw).
Cook to continue run flow?
England batsman Alastair Cook scored 116 at the Waca in 2006, making him only the second Englishman to score a century at the ground since 1986. Graham Thorpe scored 123 in 1995.Reuse content