Vaughan and Ponting ready for the showdown
This has been no ordinary build-up to a Test match. But this is no ordinary Test. England are on the verge of reclaiming the Ashes after 18 years and Australia know that anything less than victory will send them home to face a barrage of criticism and some very tough questions. Given what is riding on the outcome both captains came across relaxed during their press conferences at The Oval, although it was easy to tell who was leading the series.
"I'll have a pint please," quipped Michael Vaughan as he took his place next to the bar in room set aside for the interviews, which was crammed to the rafters with journalists, and cameras. This series (and more than ever this Test) is big news almost everywhere and the ECB media department has been working overtime to try and squeeze in all the hacks who want to cover the final chapter to this drama. Some should pack their umbrellas because they will be perched outside and, of course, most of England is praying for some help from the weather.
The huge media presence is proof of the state of this series, as were the two press conferences given by Vaughan and Ricky Ponting. Vaughan was his languid self - while the country has been losing its head he has remained, outwardly at least, an image of calmness - and his interview was a run-of-the-mill affair.
He admitted that the loss of Simon Jones opens the door for either Paul Collingwood or James Anderson to be a hero - although he gave few hints over which one will get that opportunity. "Simon is a big loss, he has bowled extremely well and it was going to be very hard to find a like-for-like replacement. Given the way he has bowled he is probably up there with the best in the world at the moment.
"But it's a great opportunity for Jimmy or Colly to come and a make name for themselves this week. It will be a tough decision to make on who comes in and we wish them well. There is no bigger match for someone to come in." It is hoped that neither player is of the nervous disposition.
Ah, yes, the nerves, a rare commodity around the country after the last three Tests. But what about Vaughan's: "I'm fine at the moment but I'm sure I will have some tomorrow morning."
Once Jones was ruled out of the Test, many of the questions put to Vaughan have been based around two topics - Glenn McGrath and the weather. McGrath has now been passed fit after his afternoon workout but Vaughan said he is not concerned about things out of his control.
"We have been very good at controlling everything that we can. We can only control our performances, not what the weather is going to do or whether Glenn is going to play. You know that whichever attack you face it is going to be strong. We really are focussing on our performance levels and we know that if we can continue to be a high standard we know can put them under pressure."
The Australia team is already under more pressure than it has felt since their reign as the world's best began during the mid-nineties. While Vaughan did not have to field any particularly tough questions, Ponting certainly sounded like a man contemplating the worst. He is certainly aware that the reception back home will not be particularly accommodating if they fail to win this Test. "We will cop a bit of a hammering if we lose," he said with a nervous grin.
His Australian side has certainly shown its age on this tour and all the talk has been of the end of an era and a changing of the guard. But Ponting tried his best to dampen any thoughts that some players are facing a make-or-break Test. "We said at the start of the tour that a few of the older guys may be on their last Ashes tour but I wouldn't like to say that anyone is playing for the future."
But what about his own position? If England reclaim the Ashes Ponting will go down in history as the Australian captain that ended an era of dominance. "I wouldn't like to think that my position would be under threat and I'm not sure that one series defeat would be the end of an era.
"We are a team, a very close team and if we do lose we will all be responsible for it at the end of the day. I will take a bit more responsibility because I'm captain. If we happen to lose this game I will put my hand up and say there are things I could have done differently but if we happen to win, things probably won't be as tough on me as they could have been."
Ponting, though, was quick to end on an attacking note - maybe a sign of things to come over the next five days. "The way things have been said over the last four days you'd think we were 4-0 down, but we're not. We got very close to winning the last Test and we nearly won the second. It's gone England's way at the moment but we have got a week to change that and change everyone's thinking about the series."
Ponting finished by saying if Australia gets the result this game it will be the greatest series he has ever played in. He didn't say what it would be if he didn't. This series has lived and breathed on such fine lines. Getting very close won't do for Australia this time. Tomorrow, at 10.30, the talking can stop.
Andrew McGlashan is editorial assistant of Cricinfo