Australia v England, 1st Test, Brisbane November 22, 2006

Stop the talk, start the Ashes

Andrew Flintoff: "We just want to get started" © Getty Images

The local slogan for the Ashes is "It's definitely on!" Finally, after 15 months of build-up, it's definitely here. When the toss-winning captain chooses to bat on a fast Gabba pitch on Thursday morning the most hyped series will begin and the players will be the happiest of all.

Both captains - and teams - have tired of questions and are ready to start answering with performances. "We just want to get started," an impatient Andrew Flintoff said. "Now it's time to get on the pitch and start going. It's nice that it's over."

But can the series live up to the 2005 model? And will the disappointment be justified if it doesn't? It seems impossible that five Tests, which have already attracted record-breaking sales, could satisfy lead-up coverage that has continued to rise like floodwaters.

Ricky Ponting has the most heavily magnified job in Australia as he begins a campaign that will define his career as captain. One Ashes loss was sloppy, but a second would be an etching no amount of minnow-belting could erase. Since The Oval last September Australia have won 11 of 12 Tests and their toughest contests came from South Africa, who are currently ranked sixth, and Bangladesh at the end of an exhausting stretch.

Both sides' preparations have suffered blips but England will offer Australia their greatest assignment since the 2-1 failure that sparked a boom of interest in both countries. Ponting has been a career cricketer since he was 16 and his heartbeat remains settled for run-of-the-mill matches. This time even he has been influenced by the occasion.

It's time for Ricky Ponting's bats to do the talking © Getty Images

"The excitement is starting to overflow for everybody," Ponting said. "I think it's important that we keep a check on that. Not to get too carried away with things and not to try to make things happen too quickly." England won the big moments at home last year and none will be larger than the opening session.

Flintoff was the key cast member and he has grabbed another role by adding captaincy to his allrounder status. Pour in his recovery from an ankle injury and he faces an unenviable task to carry his nation.

"The 2005 win was a huge achievement," he said. "To have the opportunity to defend them in Australia is even bigger. If we can pull it off it will be something amazing."

England's biggest decision hovers over whether to push for the extra batting credentials of Ashley Giles or the more aggressive bowling of Monty Panesar. Left-arm spin has not been Australia's favourite method over the past decade and the choice will give a guide to England's outlook for the series.

Australia were forced into some restructuring due to Shane Watson's hamstring injury, which gave Michael Clarke a chance and trimmed the attack from five bowlers to four. Shaun Tait was dropped from the squad on Wednesday and the final space will be fought between Stuart Clark and Mitchell Johnson. Clark's experience and his Man-of-the-Series performance in South Africa last March give him the edge over the uncapped Johnson.

The pitch will suit the fast men and the curator Kevin Mitchell junior tipped the surface to be the quickest of his tenure. It will have the usual green tinges but the captain who wins the toss will not follow Nasser Hussain's mistake of 2002-03.

"Since the rebuild of the stadium in 2000 it's the quickest it's been," Mitchell said. "It will have early life, although I'm not sure how long it will last." Mitchell could have been speaking about the series as a whole.

Australia (possible) 1 Matthew Hayden, 2 Justin Langer, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Damien Martyn, 5 Michael Hussey, 6 Michael Clarke, 7 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 8 Shane Warne, 9 Brett Lee, 10 Stuart Clark, 11 Glenn McGrath.

England (possible) 1 Andrew Strauss, 2 Alastair Cook, 3 Ian Bell, 4 Paul Collingwood, 5 Kevin Pietersen, 6 Andrew Flintoff (capt), 7 Geraint Jones (wk), 8 Ashley Giles, 9 Matthew Hoggard, 10 Steve Harmison, 11 James Anderson.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo