Something strange is happening. It is a sensation familiar only to those who have seen aliens land, pigs fly and Darlington win the FA Cup. All on the same afternoon. Australians are talking up the Poms' chances of winning the Ashes.
Of course they are not saying that England will win – that would be a heresy too far – but the concession that two teams are actually competing is a gross distortion of normal practice. Usually, England arrive, all of Australia rejoice in their imminent discomfort, rejoice a little more when that duly occurs and get on with it until the next time.
Not now, not in the early Australian summer of 2010. The economy might be booming. Apart from the vineyards in the west and the south, whose export markets have dried up, the country has escaped largely unscathed from the financial shenanigans that engulfed the rest of the globe. There is something to be said for being at the end of the world.
But the cricket team is in recession, with few if any recent months of growth. It continued, perhaps grew deeper, yesterday when they lost their sixth consecutive match in all forms of the game, this one a limited overs game to Sri Lanka in Melbourne. Sri Lanka, who had the better of the early exchanges, were all but beaten at 107 for 8 needing 240 to win. But a world record ninth-wicket stand of 132 turned the match.
How vulnerable Australia now are. And if they were to lose to England it would undoubtedly be a double dip recession with depression looming. It is a measure of the pretty pass that has been reached that one of the hard-nosed Australian hacks (all Aussie hacks are hard-nosed, if often also one-eyed) watching England practice yesterday at Richardson Park, the home of South Perth Cricket Club, said: "They look so relaxed." The voice betrayed awe and apprehension equally.
It was meant to convey that they were at ease with themselves, sure of their ability, in control of their destiny. The truth probably was that they are relaxed because they are four days into the tour, just coming out the other side of jet lag, are excited about being here and are still three weeks away from the serious business. Why wouldn't they be relaxed?
But perceptions are important. When England arrived here four years ago as holders of the Ashes they were in disarray from the start. Their itinerary was an obvious dud, the foolhardy risk they had taken with selection was soon to be capsized when their opening batsmen Marcus Trescothick went home, there was backroom dispute about the composition of their team, their captain, Andrew Flintoff, was not up to the job and they lost 5-0.
As Andrew Strauss, England's captain of 2010, said diplomatically yesterday: "I don't know if preparation is radically different. We have tried to be focused and get the intensity level as high as possible as quickly as possible in practice, but also realise that down time is down time.
"Last time we started in Sydney, then went up to Canberra for a one-day match. It was a slightly more muddled preparation in that first week or so, we're clearly straight into Test match mode now. We're four days into the tour. So far it has gone perfectly well, we haven't played any cricket yet. But we're happy where we are as a squad, the guys are full of the joys of spring and very excited to be out here. The intensity and their work ethic has been outstanding so far."
Or as the venerable Richie Benaud put it on television yesterday, the England of four years ago were asked if they wanted to play some state matches, turned the idea down and said they were travelling to play the Ashes and then look what happened. England, having learned, will play three first-class matches before the opening Test in Brisbane on 25 November.
Nobody is denying that all roads lead to the Gabba but starting tomorrow against Western Australia at the WACA in Perth they will treat the journey with due earnestness and respect. There will be, as far as can be told, none of the 13- or 14-a-side matches which have marked, or indeed marred, the early part of recent tours here. England intend to be intense, to mean business.
"The last thing we want to do is approach these games like warm-up games, we want to hit the ground running, treat them like first-class games and go out to win them," said Strauss. "That's the key and we want to achieve some winning momentum.
"We're trying to do preparation-wise as close to a Test match as we possibly can. In Australia you generally come up against a good side who are very keen and intend to prove a point. We don't expect anything different, with two good state sides and Australia A who will play very competitive cricket in their own conditions."
This is the rigorously correct approach. It is possible that England will be mildly embarrassed in the next three weeks because Australian cricketers see the inflicting of embarrassment on visiting cricketers, particularly those from what they no longer see as the Mother Country, as a national duty.
But that will diminish and not eradicate the general feeling abroad. There has been no Pom baiting yet in the papers. True, there has been the diversion of the Melbourne Cup – in which So You Think, billed as the latest to be the new Phar Lap, the greatest racehorse in Australian history, became the latest one to fail – and there is, of course, the one-day series against Sri Lanka. But it is still oddly quiet, partly because they fear the worst.
The Poms are trying desperately hard not to engage in any war of words. So that when Matt Prior, the wicketkeeper, was asked about sledging, he said that all that was behind England now. The cricket would do their talking for them. Prior is an admirable cricketer but anybody who has watched England in the field for any length of time can also usually hear Prior, urging his own players to great deeds and berating the opposition. Long may it continue – but if Matty says he has given it up then he has given it up. But don't bet on it.
No man is more deliberately balanced than Strauss. When he goes out to toss he will wear his blazer, his cap and carry a diplomatic bag. Asked yesterday about the low-key reception that has greeted England he said that he was not surprised. "I have always found the Australian public to be very friendly and they have always wanted teams to come here and do well," he said, presumably imagining a parallel Australia unvisited by Douglas Jardine, Raymond Illingworth and Mike Brearley. "Perhaps their opinion changes if they [the visitors] don't play well, so you need to earn their respect and that's what we intend to do."
England look to be close-knit but a couple of defeats might change that. They practised with notable diligence yesterday, in the middle at Richardson Park, trying to replicate certain match conditions. At one point in proceedings, Kevin Pietersen was caught at second slip, driving at one which bounced from Steve Finn, and had to go.
But the rest of the time, it has to be said, Pietersen looked in good order. It is noticeable, however, that a protective cocoon has been erected round Pietersen and that his team-mates, to a man, talk of his good form and splendid hitting. They would not deny, presumably, that if they say it often enough it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Aussies think KP is the key to the Ashes too. Maybe, maybe not. England would not prefer to do so, but they can live without him now. The distinction is important for all parties.
England will play a strong team against WA tomorrow, probably their strongest and therefore the one they would like to go in with at Brisbane. To outsiders, the XI seems nailed on already but perhaps that is not so. Every time that Chris Tremlett has been espied he looks like something.
"We would like to give the guys who are in the Test XI as much cricket as possible but there are still one or two places up for grabs in that Test XI," said Strauss. "I am looking at giving our best XI as good a preparation as possible and maybe one or two don't get as much cricket as they would like. I'm sure they will understand the reasons for that." Players never understand, as he well knows, but it was as sure an indication as any from Our Man in Perth that the diplomatic bag contains a scalpel.
Australia have been perilously off-colour in the build-up to the Ashes, losing their last six matches in all competitions. Their last victory came in a Test match against Pakistan on 13 July, which they won by 150 runs.
ODI v Sri Lanka (Melbourne Cricket Ground)
Australia: 239-8 (M Hussey 71 no)
Sri Lanka: 243-9 (A Mathews 77 no)
Australia lost by one wicket
Twenty20 v Sri Lanka (The WACA, Perth)
Australia: 133-8 (B Haddin 35)
Sri Lanka: 135-3 (K Sangakkara 44 no)
Australia lost by seven wickets
ODI v India (Vishakhapatnam)
Australia 289-3 (M Clarke 111 no)
India: 292-5 (V Kohli 118)
Australia lost by five wickets
Test match v India (Bangalore)
Australia: 478 & 223
India: 495 (S Tendulkar 214) & 207-3
Australia lost by seven wickets
Test match v India (Mohali)
Australia: 428 (S Watson 126) & 192
India: 405 & 216-9
Australia lost by one wicket
Test match v Pakistan (Headingley)
Australia: 88 & 349 (M Clarke 77)
Pakistan: 258 & 180-7
Australia lost by three wickets
21Number of catches taken by Fred Trueman in his 19 Test matches against Australia. "Fiery Fred", better known for his bowling than his fielding, took 79 Ashes wickets between 1953 and 1964 at an average of 25.30.Reuse content