Titanic tussle swings back into action
Only nine days have elapsed since the grandstand finish to the Old Trafford Test, but an entire season seems to have rolled by in that time. Manchester's mellow evening sunshine has given way to an autumnal gloom at Trent Bridge, and given that both England and Australia were driven into the indoor facilities at nearby Loughborough to complete their fine-tuning ahead of the fourth Test, one could be forgiven for thinking that tomorrow's resumption of hostilities has become slightly low-key.
But, if the weather is hinting that the end of the cricket season is nigh, then the state of the series would beg to differ. Locked at one match apiece after three titanic tussles at Lord's, Edgbaston and Old Trafford, there could hardly be more at stake over the next five days. Victory for England, and the end of an 18-year Ashes hiatus could be on the cards. Defeat, on the other hand, and regardless of the result at The Oval next month, the prize will have slipped away for yet another 18 months.
With that in mind, England are set to adopt the very same up-and-at-`em approach that has served them so well for the past two games. Incredibly, given their historic inability to take 20 wickets in a match in Ashes contests, only one Australian scalp has eluded them all series - and that was the desperate last-wicket stand between Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath that saved the match at Old Trafford. Suddenly, England's five-man bowling attack, spearheaded by three men capable of 90mph performances - Steve Harmison, Simon Jones and Andrew Flintoff - is the talk of the world game.
On such cornerstones, world-beating sides are built. But, for all that Jones and Flintoff, and their remarkable mastery of reverse-swing, were England's trump cards at Edgbaston and Old Trafford, the Trent Bridge Test may be decided by more mundane values. Matthew Hoggard has as yet been under-bowled in this series - his tally of 56 overs in three Tests is half the number that Flintoff has pounded down. But, with a showery forecast for the opening exchanges of the match, and a juicier, skiddier wicket in prospect than the rough, abrasive landing strip at Old Trafford, those old English virtues of seam and swing may be much more in evidence.
In ordinary circumstances, Australia would not mind such conditions one little bit. In McGrath they possess arguably the finest English-wicket bowler of the modern era, and as he demonstrated so amply in the first Test at Lord's, with a hint of atmospheric or geological assistance, he can be unplayable. But Australia's support act is in something approaching disarray - Jason Gillespie is about to be pensioned off, and the raw and rapid Shaun Tait has already guaranteed a first Test cap. Against that backdrop, McGrath's possible absence with an elbow injury is a grievous blow to Australia's match strategy.
Tait and Lee are capable of unplayable deliveries, such as the Tait snorter that rattled Justin Langer's stumps in net practice on Tuesday, but without McGrath's metronomic presence at the other end, they can be cannon fodder as well, as England proved with their first-day batting onslaught at Edgbaston. Australia are officially optimistic about McGrath's prospects of playing, and he will surely be included regardless of the pain, but his aching limbs are just another visible sign of Australia's rapidly diminishing aura of invincibility.
One man, however, has been raging against the dying of the light all summer, and he will once again have a pivotal role as this contest reaches its denouement. Shane Warne has been the most effective player on either side - more of an allround influence even than Flintoff - and no cause can be considered lost while he still has the ball in his hand or, increasingly this summer, pads on his limbs.
On Tuesday, Warne offered a personal guarantee that his one-man show was about to come to an end and that the real Australia was about to take centre stage again. But for that to happen, then two men must emerge from arguably the biggest sloughs of their career. It is now 28 innings since Matthew Hayden last reached a century in a Test match, and no other Australian cricketer has ever been afforded such a long time to reassert his authority. Both he and Adam Gilchrist - Australia's most notable absentee in the pyrotechnics department - have been tied in knots by England's reverse-swingers, particularly Flintoff, whose round-the-wicket line has denied them both valuable space to free the arms.
The one bonus for Australia, however, is that they know they have room to improve. While England are playing at pretty much the limits of their game, with one or two minor exceptions, there is hardly an Australian - Warne excepted - who can feel proud of their performances to date. Justin Langer has looked in supreme touch all series but has a top score of 82 to his credit, while Ricky Ponting's 156 in the last Test was the sort of overdue flourishing that any one of the top seven is capable of.
England's players, however, have confidence coursing through their veins and a licence to enjoy their cricket and play to their own strengths. It is a luxury that has been exclusive to the Australians for more than a decade. Add to that mix a frenzied home crowd who are sure to ignore the sporadic showers to play their part as a virtual 12th man, and England will start this contest as favourites. It is an unfamiliar scenario, but so long as they do not develop vertigo while they ponder this turn of events, they are a tight enough unit to justify the unrivalled hype.
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 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 Glenn McGrath, 11 Shaun Tait.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo