The game of a generation
Tomorrow morning, at 10.30am, the nation's biggest sporting event for 39 years gets underway, as England begin the five-day trek that could make or break the legacy of a generation. Not since the 1966 football World Cup has the country been quite so rapt by a ball game, and not since the Oval Test of 1953, when the Ashes were regained after a 20-year hiatus, has there been an occasion to bring South London to quite such a grinding halt. To paraphrase Mark Nicholas in one of his more excitable commentary stints: this is, quite simply, massive.
At every twist and turn of this remarkable series, the stakes have been mounting with the sort of alarming alacrity that would spook a Vegas hustler, but this week at last, the requirements have plateaued. There are no more ifs and buts to distract the two camps, merely a question of whose nerve can hold the longest. In theory, England have the upper hand. They lead 2-1 in the series, and need only to avoid defeat to end the most miserably one-sided era of Ashes cricket since the post-war depression of the 1920s. But as Australia themselves demonstrated in an unnaturally timid performance at Trent Bridge last month, the temptation to cling onto what you have got can be over-powering - and self-defeating.
Publicly at least, Michael Vaughan has no intention to shut up shop and bat out for the draw. "We have played to win throughout the series and will certainly be doing that again," he told reporters on the eve of the match. "There are not many draws between these two teams because of the manner in which both play the game, but if we play a good, consistent game of cricket, the result will take care of itself."
Even so, England's hand may be forced by the loss of their most incisive seamer of the summer. When Simon Jones limped out of the attack at Trent Bridge after just nine overs of the follow-on, England's entire gameplan was destabilised. Having beaten Australia onto the ropes with an unstinting flurry of punches, they were forced to throttle back and adopt a waiting game, as the burden was shared between just four front-liners and the occasional seam of Ian Bell. As the eventual margin of victory demonstrated, it was very nearly a series-scuppering moment.
No combination of oxygen-tanks and German osteopaths could get Jones fit again for this match, and so England will not, after all, emulate Arthur Shrewsbury's tourists of 1884-85, and become only the second team to get through an Ashes series with the same 11 players. Instead, England must choose between the extra batting and fielding skills of Paul Collingwood, or the like-for-like option of James Anderson, who has usurped the uncapped Chris Tremlett in a match that screams out for experience, however limited.
Ricky Ponting, for his part, claimed he would be "surprised" if England did not go for the Collingwood option, but if attack is England's preferred policy, then Anderson will surely get the go-ahead for his first home Test since the corresponding fixture against West Indies last summer. It will be a bold decision given Anderson's very public loss of confidence in his last Test outing, at Johannesburg in January, but he has spent the summer out of the limelight, quietly accumulating 51 wickets for Lancashire. Despite an apparent reduction in the prodigious swing that made him such a threat in his debut season in 2003, he is a wicket-taker by nature and no Australian can afford to take him lightly.
The most significant seam bowler on display, however, could be the one sizing up a return to the Australian starting line-up. Judging by Glenn McGrath's vigorous workout on Tuesday, the elbow problem that caused him to miss the Trent Bridge defeat has been brought under control, and even if he is unable to pick up a cricket ball ever again after this tour, his presence alone will be worth a psychological point or two, as Australia prepare to go for broke.
So far on this tour, Shane Warne's presence has kept Australia from being swept away in the middle three Tests, but it is McGrath's absences that have been the most telling factors. Both of Australia's defeats came in the matches that he missed, and on the rare occasions that he has sat out an Ashes encounter, Australia have lost an incredible four Tests in a row, a run that stretches back to the Adelaide defeat of 1994-95. On Saturday, two 20-year-olds from Essex walloped 500 runs off a McGrath-and-Warneless attack in a single day. With England in their current mood, Australia cannot afford to be without their champion any longer.
The Oval is traditionally a hard and true surface, which will suit England's batsmen every bit as much as their Australian counterparts, not least Michael Vaughan. His solitary hundred of the series came at Old Trafford, the one pitch where his stumps could not be threatened by your average length delivery, and if he can win a vital toss and take first use of the track, England will fancy their chances of posting an unassailable first-innings total.
Set against that, of course, is Australia's own familiarity with such high-kicking conditions. Ponting and Justin Langer have been on the brink of a golden run of form all summer, while Damien Martyn has been singled out by accidents and remains better value than his 168 runs at 21 would suggest. The two most intriguing case-studies, however, are Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist, whose travails have encapsulated all that has gone wrong for Australia this summer.
Of the two, Hayden appears the closer to breaking-point. He has now failed to pass 70 in his last 30 Test innings, and has been all at sea against England's ruthlessly well-planned field settings, which have included two men in the covers to intercept his hard-handed drives, and a staggered slip cordon with reinforced gullies. His 150 against Essex last week could not disguise the extent to which his bully-boy batting has been brought low on this tour, and though Australia are eager not to be seen to be panicking, the temptation to draft in Michael Hussey must have been overwhelming.
Gilchrist is a different case altogether. His problems seem to have been less an issue of technique than desire. His highest score in the series has been 49 not out, and time and again, he has been brought low just when it seemed - finally - that he was about to cut loose in the manner that all of England dreads. Mind you, his solitary century of the tour came on this very ground, in the final match of the NatWest Challenge. Like the Aussies en masse, you write them off at your peril.
There is, of course, one other factor that could influence this match - the overhead conditions. In the course of this summer, England's cricketers have attracted a vast army of fair-weather fans, but in an ironic twist (one that would be sure to please those gnarled, hard-bitten veterans of the hard times) it could be that foul weather intervenes and prevents any more heart attacks before the result of this series is known.
The forecast is set for glorious weather on the first day, followed by probable interruptions for Friday and the weekend. In a summer when the Gods have undoubtedly been smiling on England, a midmatch downpour would be the surest sign that providence has played its part in the team's remarkable renaissance. But it would be an unworthy conclusion to the most exhilarating Test series for decades. A result, one way or another, is what this contest deserves.
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 James Anderson.
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