There is an unmistakable mood in the air. It is at once unfamiliar, catching and dangerous. It is that England, for the first time in a quarter of century, can win the Ashes in Australia.
Since the tourists arrived three weeks ago, the notion has gained astonishing credence. England have prepared as well, nay much better, than they have in any of the past five losing series, which might be like saying that a terminally ill patient's dandruff is clearing up but is actually significant progress. They have bristled with intent and purpose, they have been meticulous, they are ready for the series which at last begins in Brisbane on Thursday.
In sweeping aside Australia A, supposedly the second-best team able to be mustered in the country, by 10 wickets yesterday the tourists merely continued their stately march. The second-string bowling attack was clinical, making swift incisions early in the morning and the afternoon. Five minutes after tea it was all done. They would have had time to catch the afternoon flight to Brisbane a day early.
By contrast, Australia has been afflicted by a phenomenon unknown to them: self-doubt. The media have been carping, the selectors beset by indecision, the public have virtually given up. At this stage in any Ashes series, before a ball has been bowled, Australians are usually licking their lips and swaggering, often at the same time. This lot are fit only for the psychoanalyst's couch.
England could have named their team as soon as they got off the plane three weeks ago and all but did when they picked their XI for the opening first-class match. After a week of prevarication, which began with the naming of a 17-man squad, Australia managed to trim it to 13 yesterday.
It included a left-arm spinner by the name of Xavier Doherty, who started plying his trade eight seasons ago and has a first-class bowling average of almost 49. It is an audacious move, hardly lessened by the information that Shane Warne himself was picked when he had taken only eight first-class wickets for 45 runs each.
Australia's batsmen have spent the week auditioning either in the Sheffield Shield or for Australia A, whose tame performance against England was alleviated only a little by having the worst of the conditions. In the end, the home side have stuck with the veteran Mike Hussey, not only because he scored a last-ditch hundred for Western Australia on Friday but because the other candidates for the middle order all failed.
Three of England's batsmen have scored hundreds in the past three weeks, a fourth has scored two fifties, a fifth one half-century, and the sixth, Jonathan Trott, who has had a slower start, scored 184 in his last Test and shared in a world-record stand. Kevin Pietersen will be the focus of attention but Ian Bell has looked a million dollars. The bowlers have probably been sure of their places for months, and after progressing splendidly in the first two matches have spent the past four days becoming accustomed to the Brisbane humidity.
If England do not beat Australia in this series they may never beat them in this country again. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty, as it happens. Australia are not the team they have been for England's past five visits but nor are they the team everyone thinks they have become.
The fact that they have fallen to fifth in the world rankings, a place behind England, belies their record at home. They have lost only one of their past 31 series in Australia, to South Africa two years ago, a result for which they achieved immediate retribution by winning in South Africa. Of the 99 Tests involved in those series, they have lost only 11. At Brisbane, their sequence is formidable. It is 22 years and 21 Tests since West Indies won by nine wickets. They have won 16 of those games, six by an innings, the closest by 123 runs. This is not a run that will be easily ended.
It is certain that the two captains, Ricky Ponting of Australia and Andrew Strauss of England, will be crucial to the health, both physical and mental, of their sides. Ponting is under scrutiny as never before. Twice loser of the Ashes, he also led the team to a 2-0 defeat in India recently. His batting is not what it was, and if reports of dressing-room unrest are exaggerated they may not be for long.
Ponting has been a great cricketer who for the latter part of his captaincy has not had the benefit of other great cricketers around him. How he inspires and moulds his less gifted team in the next six weeks will have a huge significance. He will have played a key role in the summons of his fellow Tasmanian Doherty, and he now has to make it work. While he will bring his usual gimlet-eyed nervelessness to the fray and willbe gracious afterwards whatever happens, it may be a series too far.
For Strauss, as for so many England captains here, the next few weeks could define the rest of his career, and his life. Overlooked twice for the captaincy, he might have thought this series would never happen. But he has made the job his own, and if like Ponting he is not a heroic tactician, he has qualities of calmness and authority that cannot be underestimated.
It is important to their sides that both captains make runs, and both will be specific targets. Ponting has made only one hundred in his past 29 innings and his susceptibility to the pull and the hook is not a figment of the imagination. He cannot carry himself along on grittiness alone. Strauss looks in extremely good form after two dominating centuries on the tour so far but his last in Tests was at Lord's against Australia 23 innings ago, since when he averages 35. England must have sound starts to get the first-innings runs that will be essential.
There is a feeling that Brisbane may hold the key, though both sides will deny it if they are the ones who lose. All reports suggest that the Gabba is likely to provide a pitch of pace, carry and bounce that will all but guarantee a positive result. In the past seven Sheffield Shield matches there have been three totals under 100 and another six under 200.
The fast bowlers on both sides must hit the ground running – though not too short of a length – for they may never have a better chance in the series. England will go with Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steve Finn; Australia with Ben Hilfenhaus, Mitchell Johnson and Doug Bollinger. The enigma among that lot is Johnson, who may take 0 for 60 before lunch and 5 for 10 after it. But his inswing appears to have deserted him. The unknown quantity is Finn, the tallest bowler to play for England, who has quietly got on with the job since he got here and has impressed more with each outing.
The spinners may not – but only may not – play a huge part at Brisbane but will come into their own afterwards. When England compare Graeme Swann with Doherty they will like what they see. Swann is the best spin bowler in the world and nobody is sure whether Doherty is the best spin bowler in Tasmania.
Given the possible weather, both captains may be tempted to bowl. Ponting, however, has resisted it at all costs since asking England to bat at Edgbaston in 2005 and losing the match, batting on all 29 occasions he has won the toss since. Strauss may also have to nod to history. England won the toss at Brisbane in 1954 and 2002, asked Australia to bat and were hammered both times. Indeed England have lost 14 Ashes Tests when they have won the toss and fielded, and won only three.
All along Strauss and the coach, Andy Flower, have made it plain that substantial first-innings totals are essential to the campaign. England's batting has not been much to write home about; now they have to act on those words. But there is an immutable sense of destiny at play. It may be a plod more than a gallop to glory. But for the first time in 24 years and only the seventh in the 26 series that have taken place in Australia in the past century, England will win the Ashes.
Angus Fraser: 2-2 draw
The First Test will be pivotal. If England win it the pressure on Ponting and his side will go through the roof. If Australia win the country's apathy will disappear, they will unite to once again and life will become very difficult for England.
Brian Lara: 2-1 to Australia
What Australia prepare pitch-wise will dictate how well Swann does. I would prepare fast, bouncy tracks and back my guys to see off the English pacemen. Australia's main strength is to wear the opposition down when they are batting.
Stephen Brenkley: 2-1 to England
Nothing in recent series suggests England have a prayer but this time England look to have the superior and better-prepared side who seem genuinely to believe they can win.
David Lloyd: 3-1 to England
Avoiding defeat in Brisbane is crucial. Australia are banking on success there and even a draw will deflate them. Broad (ball) and Pietersen (bat) to star, with Swann and Bell not far behind.
Bob Willis: 2-2 draw
Optimism has to be the order of the day. England are in good shape going into the Brisbane Test, they are well led and I think they've got just enough to cling on to the urn.
Stephen Fay: 3-1 to Australia
The head rules the heart. The last time we won there, Ian Botham was in his prime. The batting has been suspect, the bowlers are not notably better than theirs. Swann may prove me wrong.
Andrew Strauss (capt)
As significant as any England captain in Australia has ever been. He has made this team his, Australia know it and he will be targeted. He is strong in areas where his predecessor Flintoff was weak. Forget tactical acumen, his calm maturity will be essential.
Still only 25 with 60 Tests behind him, by now he might have been among the world's leading openers. Has stalled lately but can adapt. He and Strauss have to gel, with at least two substantial first-innings partnerships.
Presence at No 3 shows the business England are in. Decidely unflashy but resolute, dogged, in it for the long haul and will try to wear Australia down until they have had quite enough.
The fact that not much is expected of him, that he has been so out of touch, may work in his favour. He says he is on fire and seems relaxed and quietly determined. If he starts well anything can happen and probably will.
His career has been a testament to making the most of what you have, then finding some more. He has twin ambitions: winning the Ashes away and winning the World Cup. Hard tour, but northern toughness is important.
Perhaps at last his time has come. At No 6 he could be the difference between 300 and 450. He can make batting look ridiculously easy and if he can stop giving his wicket away in daft ways, plunder could follow.
Perseverance has produced a solid, rounded Test cricketer. Wicketkeeping has improved beyond measure, his batting can change a game quickly but he must check excitement. Charming chap, extremely capable of getting right up Australian noses on the field.
Runs could be important but they are secondary. It is as a fast bowler with bounce that he will have his largest influence in a four-man attack. His 2009 experiences against Australia will enhance his burgeoning talent.
From nowhere to being the world's best spinner has been some journey (the Swann also rises). For England to win he has to act as holding agent and as strike man. Despite his perpetually playful persona he is a deep thinker who may make Australia think more.
Sometimes it seems there ain't no zing if he ain't got that swing. He has to find ways round that or he can expect to go for a few. But he has settled into a neat rhythm andknows what he has to do.
The Great White Beanpole. Fast bowlers can make their mark suddenly, and seeing the way he has progressed in two weeks here, there is reason to believe he can give Australia the hurry-up. May notmake all five Tests, though.
Reserve batsman who scored a sublime maiden Test century last summer. Still must iron out defects as a Test batsman and if he plays, it means someone has failed or been injured. But it would be wonderful to see him in his pomp.
The feeling persists that England have not brought him to carry the drinks and he could have a game before the end. Brings traditional weapons of the tall man: pace and brutal bounce. Do not underestimate his spirit.
A Yorkshireman not short of self-belief who hits the pitch hard enough to make batsmen think twice. Perhaps the new ball is beyond him. A proper batsman, splendid fielder, strong as an ox, a smasher in the dressing room.
Has arrested the freefall into which his career was going. Has looked relaxed on the tour so far and mustbe prepared to step into Swann's shoes at any time. Hopefully his repertoire has grown.
Smart keeper, well-ordered batsman who will probably stay quietly in the background. Still awaiting his Test debut but he is highly competent.
An unofficial addition to the squad so far. He is well-regarded by the coaches and his undoubted ability to extract reverse-swing from an old ball may not be wholly overlooked.
Ricky Ponting (capt)
If he has a bad series then Australia will lose. There is a suspicion that he is going down the other side of the mountain but his iron-willed determination to beat the Poms should not be underestimated.
It is still possible to knock the entire cricket world down with a feather to think he is opening for Australia. Makeshift at best, he has somehow taken to the role.
The left-hander as been a solid force at the top of the order. He had an indifferent two-Test series, in common with others, in India recently. But his runs will be crucial. At 35 this will be his last hurrah.
He has become the side's most dependable batsman. But his frail back might well prevent him being the force he has been in two previous Ashes campaigns. He is the captain in waiting – and he may not have to wait much longer.
He has hardly been able to buy a Test run for a year but in acknowledgement of past deeds the selectors refuse to take the step they should have done. He's in the 13 mainly because of the failures of his rivals.
Has been under pressure throughout his career, largely self-imposed.His five Test centuries arecounterbalanced by his failure to go beyond 21 in 22 of his 32 Test innings.
An extremely capable batsman but a less accomplished wicketkeeper, who has suffered by having to follow Adam Gilchrist into the side. Were Australia to lose then he might be one of several to go.
Among the oddest serious fast bowlers in Test history. He seems utterly hopeless one moment, unplayable the next. Depends on which version turns up but his temperament may be the key to Australia taking sufficient wickets.
Wholehearted left-armer who swings it may well pose problems for England's top-order left-handers. But he has many indifferent days and Worcestershire fans hardly remember him fondly for his 16 wickets at 45 runs each in seven matches in 2007.
The steadiest, most reliable of all Australia's bowlers, who will keep going all day if he is fit. He has still only played seven Tests but keeps batsmen honest by bowling straight with movement.
Tasmanian left-arm spinner who has barely been sure of his place in the state side. A good start to this season persuaded the selectors to replace Hauritz in the 13-man squad but it still shows the paucity of spin resources.
Leg-spinner with genuine prospects of being an all-rounder. Biffs the ball fearlessly, far from the finished article as a bowler but the selectors should stop messing about and pick him. Chosen for the 13-man Gabba squad.
Strong fast bowler who hits the deck, and another who will always send down an extra over for the side. It is doubtful whether he is of high Test class, but he made the 13-man squad.
A spinner, like others in this side, having to follow a legend. It is hardly his fault that he is no Shane Warne but he has poor strike- and run-rates, was indifferent in India recently and has paid the price by being dropped.
Upright right-hander with plenty of shots which on the evidence of two sightings in Australia this winter he plays too often. He was impressive in the one-day series in England last year and is very close to selection.
Left-handed batsman born in Pakistan whom everybody is talking about. Easy on the eye, it is said that he has few weaknesses. But stepping into an Ashes series will be a test of that, and he failed twice for Australia A.
A surprise pick in the squad because he is still recovering from injury. It is a sure sign that the selectors like his accuracy and ability to assemble an incisive spell but he is 31 and they may be barking up the wrong tree.Reuse content