And so it begins
To say the talking is over would be a lie, because for the next eight weeks the banter on and off the pitch is likely to exceed fever-pitch, but at last, the end of the beginning has been reached. The most interminable build-up to the biggest series of modern times is behind us, and tomorrow, at 10.30am BST, England and Australia will get on with the main event of the summer.
From the moment England left the field at Centurion way back in January, with a 2-1 series win against South Africa under their belts, July 21 has been the sole focus for the entire squad. That much became apparent when Andrew Flintoff, on whom so many of England's hopes rest, hopped on an early flight from Johannesburg to London to undergo immediate surgery on his troublesome ankle. With apologies to Bangladesh and a smattering of one-day aficionados, everything that took place between then and now has mattered not a jot in the grander scheme of things.
The questions have been asked so often and so loudly that they have taken on the guise of mantras. Is Glenn McGrath over the hill? Is Kevin Pietersen a one-shot slogger? Is Flintoff really a Test-class No. 6? Is Jason Gillespie finished? Are England's openers up to the task? Can Shane Warne leave his personal life off the pitch? Have England really dispensed with two decades of mental baggage? The trouble with pre-ambles of such length and intensity is that they tend to overshadow the main event, but for the first time in a generation, Australia suspect that the hype might, at a pinch, be justified.
"Both sets of players are sick and tired of talking about the Ashes," admitted Michael Vaughan at a press conference at Lord's. "We've got a young group of players who are excited by the challenge, and it's a challenge we are all looking forward to."
Vaughan has become an advocate of such plain speaking in recent weeks, and his toughnut approach has taken on shades of Allan Border in the definitive Ashes summer of 1989. He has understandably refused to play along with Australia's worthy, but hypocritical, suggestion that the fielder's word should be gospel where disputed catches are concerned, and if nothing else, Australia know that England will not be cowed into submission before a ball has been bowled.
That has not always been the case in the past, and Vaughan winced at the memory of the 2002-03 series, when Nasser Hussain won the toss and chose to bowl first on a baking hot first day at Brisbane. "Whether we were overawed I don't know," he added, "but Australia started well and we lost Simon Jones, which was soul-destroying for the team." Jones, whose tumbling slide on the sandy Brisbane outfield resulted in a grievous knee injury and 16 months on the sidelines, was, as expected, named in England's XI this morning, with Chris Tremlett missing out of the 12-man squad.
There will be no such pulling of punches tomorrow, when the toss is won or lost. Lord's, as Hussain himself admitted during a recent Championship match, is a ground where you look up, not down, upon winning the toss, and with clear blue skies predicted for the first three days of the match, both captains will be desperate to get first use of another belter of a pitch. Vaughan, who earned a reputation as a luckless tosser in his early captaincy days, has since won four in a row in Tests - although he would have gladly traded in some of his luck against Bangladesh for a correct call tomorrow.
Australia have taken longer than usual to find their swagger this summer, but after their humiliations in the early weeks of the tour, all the pieces of the jigsaw are starting to fall into place now. Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist found form in the final one-day matches, Damien Martyn and Justin Langer went large against Leicestershire, and even Gillespie had located some elusive rhythm by the end of that drawn game at Grace Road. McGrath, never shy of a prediction or two, announced that Australia would win 5-0, while Ponting pointed at the inexperience of England's middle-order, where Ian Bell and Pietersen (total caps - 3) have taken over from Graham Thorpe (caps - 100).
Thorpe's omission has not attracted copious column inches as yet, which is indicative of the quandary that Pietersen's irresistible one-day form has presented. Had Thorpe played more than just a solitary Test in three series against Australia, then Pietersen might have been forced to wait his turn, but as things stand, only one of the two players has genuine form against the Aussies - and it isn't the man who has already signalled his retirement at the end of the series.
The hope is that Pietersen will make up in bravado what he lacks in a watertight technique, although Australia, who have done their utmost to talk him into the team, can't wait to get stuck into him. John Buchanan, their coach, has described him as "a very poor starter", while McGrath has admitted that he and the fellow members of Australia's self-styled "fast-bowling cartel" have one or two plans up their sleeves.
But, all such speculation is, at last, superfluous. Tomorrow, the words become deeds, and not before time.
England 1 Marcus Trescothick, 2 Andrew Strauss, 3 Michael Vaughan (capt), 4 Ian Bell, 5 Kevin Pietersen, 6 Andrew Flintoff, 7 Geraint Jones (wk), 8 Ashley Giles, 9 Matthew Hoggard, 10 Simon Jones, 11 Stephen Harmison.
Australia (probable) 1 Justin Langer, 2 Matthew Hayden, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Damien Martyn, 5 Simon Katich, 6 Michael Clarke, 7 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 8 Shane Warne, 9 Brett Lee, 10 Jason Gillespie, 11 Glenn McGrath.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo