England v Australia, 3rd Test, Old Trafford August 10, 2005

Warne to the fore as Ashes come ablaze

Shane Warne will shoulder the burden of Australia's Ashes hopes © Getty Images

Suddenly, there is a buzz around the nation and expectancy is in the air. Only time will tell whether the never-to-be forgotten Edgbaston humdinger was a one-off classic a la Melbourne 1982-83, or a seminal moment in which the tide of 20 years was finally turned, but from the disarray that has swept through Australia's ranks since that agonising final morning, it is clear that England will never have a better opportunity to kick their old tormentors while they are down.

Win, lose or draw, this Ashes series has already served its purpose as far as English cricket is concerned. Little more than six full days of cricket have been played since that epic first morning at Lord's, but the performances on both sides have been so captivating that the next generation has surely been hooked already. Now, however, England have a chance to reel them in as well, as they carry their momentum to Manchester ahead of tomorrow's third Test at Old Trafford.

There is plenty time for Australia to rally and reassert their authority, but for the moment a distinct role reversal has taken place. Contrary to the pattern of the past umpteen Ashes series, it is England who are fit and fully focussed, having named an unchanged 12-man squad the morning after the match, while Australia are racked by injury dilemmas. As if Glenn McGrath's damaged ankle was not enough of a worry, the prospect of Brett Lee missing out with an infected left knee was quite simply beyond the pale.

Happily for the Aussie camp, Lee came through a fitness test with no ill-effects and will take his place in tomorrow's starting line-up. He has not been at his absolute incisive best in this series, but his sheer pace provides a shock factor that no other bowler on either side can match, and he has twice blasted through the defences of England's captain, Michael Vaughan, at crucial stages of the game. Without his venom and McGrath's impeccable control, Australia's new-ball attack would have been in the rusty hands of Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasprowicz.

The concerns over their two front-line bowlers have highlighted the fact that Australia's pace-bowling cupboard is alarmingly bare. South Australia's sweaty-toothed speedster, Shaun Tait, was theoretically the next in line, but instead the selectors drafted in the 29-year-old uncapped seamer, Stuart Clark, who is currently playing for Middlesex and is regarded as a safe pair of hands in the McGrath mould.

Clark took 40 wickets at 25.98 in the 2004-05 Pura Cup season, including a haul of 5 for 10 against Victoria, and picked up 5 for 61 for Middlesex against Warwickshire in his last county match, but there is nothing about his CV that would have had England's batsmen quaking in their boots.

Brett Lee: discharged after a second night in hospital, but will he be fit to play? © Getty Images

In the circumstances, therefore, Australia's fortunes seem to rest one player above all others. If ever there was a moment for Shane Warne's matchless sense of theatre to come to the fore, it is now. In 1993, Old Trafford was the scene of his defining hour, the Ball of the Century that bamboozled Mike Gatting and put a hex on an entire generation of English batsmen, and now he returns to his favourite hunting ground, needing a solitary scalp to become the first Test cricketer to reach 600 wickets.

Prior to this series, Warne had sized Kevin Pietersen up as his landmark victim, but after two Tests he now has another bunny in his sights. Andrew Strauss has been bowled by big-ripping legbreaks twice in the series already, and seeing as Old Trafford is the most spin-friendly venue in the country, Warne (with 17 wickets at 14.58 in his two previous visits) is optimistic of further success in the coming days. "If Strauss is still in after five or six overs, I might be thrown the ball earlier than usual," he said in his column in The Times on Tuesday.

Nevertheless, for all the groans that went up from England's supporters when the itinerary for this summer was unveiled, Old Trafford is not expected to be the spinner's paradise that it has been for the rest of the season. At least, not in the opinion of the head groundsman, Peter Marron. "It's quite flat, it's hard and there is a lot of grass on it," Marron told BBC Sport. "I would be disappointed if it didn't turn but I don't think it will turn as quickly as some people think."

That diagnosis is not good news for Stuart MacGill, Warne's perpetual understudy, who had earmarked this Test as his one outing of the tour. Though he rips his legbreaks sharply, he lacks the control that has set Warne aside as an alltime great, and his inclusion at the expense of one of the seamers would be a massive gamble, especially as McGrath cannot be called upon to stifle the opposite end. At last, Australia's selectors are gaining an insight into the traumas that have dogged their English counterparts for years.

Encouragingly from England's point of view, one of the bowlers who has enjoyed the most success at Old Trafford this season is none other than Steve Harmison, who took nine wickets for Durham against Lancashire in May, including 6 for 52 in the second innings. With McGrath and Lee potentially sidelined, he and Andrew Flintoff are now the pre-eminent seamers on display for this match, and they carry with them that ineffable advantage that comes with confidence as well. Nevertheless, there is no doubting what Michael Vaughan will want to do if he wins a crucial toss on Thursday morning. He will want to bat, and bat, and bat.

It is remarkable to think that there has not yet been a century in this series. Australia scored two on the first day alone in 2002-03 and there had been five in all at the same stage of that same series - four to Australia, and one to England. But the travails of both top fives have been well-documented this summer, not least the floundering form of Vaughan himself, whose four innings have brought him a meagre 32 runs - still more than 600 runs fewer than he managed on the last tour Down Under.

Regardless of the hard-hitting merits of Marcus Trescothick, Kevin Pietersen and Flintoff, the one batsman on either side to have batted with the composure that is usually associated with Test cricket has been Justin Langer, and he will be pivotal to Australia's prospects of posting the sort of total that will allow Warne to weave his magic. Either way, there is one hell of a match in prospect. The Ashes are well and truly ablaze.

England (probable) 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 Steve Harmison, 11 Simon Jones.

Australia (probable) 1 Matthew Hayden, 2 Justin Langer, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Damien Martyn, 5 Michael Clarke, 6 Simon Katich, 7 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 8 Shane Warne, 9 Brett Lee, 10 Jason Gillespie, 11 Michael Kasprowicz.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo