de Ninety-nine and counting for Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook, two very different men charged with the same mission. Both begin their 100th Test match with the Ashes at stake. One will remember the occasion fondly, the other will want to forget it.
They are not buddies; indeed they barely know one another other than to shake hands and toss the coin. They are cut from different cloth: one urban, one rural. Yet in the age of trash-talking, the captains have fuelled the fire of the matches at their command by references to broken bones and war. Nor have they disapproved of the coals thrown upon it by their team-mates. This is not their nature, it is a consequence of their responsibility.
It is a long time since an English side arrived in Australia as favourites. Discounting 1978-79 - when Australia were ravaged by the exodus to Kerry Packer and, consequently, Mike Brearley's tourists took full advantage - you may have to go as far back as 1958-59, when Peter May brought a Harlem Globetrotter of a team and got thrashed 4-0. It is worth looking up. Alongside May was a gallery of English cricket - including Cowdrey, Graveney, Dexter, Bailey, Evans, Laker and Lock, Tyson, Trueman and Statham. Richie Benaud's new-age Australians played with an urgency and freshness that England simply could not repel. May finished as bewildered as Cook looks now.
It is an inescapable fact that the wheel of sport spins. Only a month ago, England appeared in control of their destiny, while Australia were deeply uncertain of theirs. During the last English summer there were days and matches when the gulf between the sides had opened so alarmingly in England's favour that one feared for the immediate future of the Ashes. England were 2-0 up after the two Tests and so great was the humiliation at Lord's that many Australian visitors refused to attend much of the third day, never mind the fourth, when the last rites were read.
Had you thrown the clock forward to tomorrow and dealt the tarot cards, no way could they have turned in favour of Clarke. His young face had become old, his smile forced, his body thin, and the hair unrecognisable from the days of a bright debut. Even his brilliance with the bat was made mortal by James Anderson's constant badgering around off stump. Darren Lehmann, the new coach, scrawled notes of disbelief at the awfulness of it all. Now, incredibly, it is Andy Flower who scrawls the notes of disbelief and Cook whose smile is tight-lipped.
Good judges think England might lose this series 5-0. If so, Cook will go one worse than May. It is unthinkable, or at least it was a month ago. The reversal is best exaggerated by Sir Ian Botham's prediction that England would win 5-0. That is some swing. The fear of it tells on Cook's face. In contrast, Clarke appears at ease among his peers, and though generally stern with the media, is savvy enough to know when to lighten up. The pressure on these two cricketers is alarming and the back-to-back series have taken it to the edge.
Australia - that is, the whole country - is alive to the kill. The tension is everywhere: in streets and shops, bars and restaurants; on beaches, at golf clubs, leagues clubs and surf clubs; in taxis, at airports, at check-in, at check-out. And England are feeling it. Familiarity is close to having bred contempt - a sidebar to a ten-match super series that had not been considered.
The captains live these emotions. One reason for the Australian team's obviously aggressive approach to the matches at the Gabba and Adelaide Oval is their suffering over three series at the hands of increasingly smug Englishmen. A nation sick to the pit of its stomach with the English shall have its vengeance. As a rule the English get over losing the Ashes - they became used to it during the drought of 1989-2005 - most Australians do not. Enough is enough in a land still identified by sport. Clarke has to win and the need is driving him like he has never been driven before.
The Australian captain is out of Sydney's Western Suburbs, a blue-collar place with rugby league at its recreational core. His grandfather taught him to bat and remains convinced his grandson is the modern incarnation of Bradman. Clarke made runs and found girlfriends in equal measure. He went down the tattoo road, bought an Aston Martin, some Prada suits, and moved to Bondi. The heartland of Australia could not forgive him the excess. All the while, though, Clarke trained and practised as if possessed. Late nights were rare, early mornings regular. He married a beauty and began to bat like Bradman. Newspapers printed apologies for their previous scolding. When he told a Pommie tailender that they were out to break his arm, the masses roared approval. If the Ashes are returned, all will be forgiven.
These are two exceptional men. They lead their teams as differently as they bat. One is an adventurer, the other a pragmatist. But the idea that Clarke spends his time in nightclubs is ridiculous. His marriage is cosy and dependable. His lifestyle more humdrum than betrayed by the fast car (long gone, incidentally). His close friendship with Shane Warne lives on but is maintained around a cricketing brief.
The England captain grew up with music. He sang like an angel and played grade-eight clarinet and saxophone. His scholarship to Bedford School was given for these talents but he made a hundred against the school 1st XI as a 14-year-old ringer for the MCC, who arrived one short. Since that day, he has made hundreds on debut as a matter of course. There is a ruthlessness to him that is not immediately apparent. Much of the shock he has suffered these past few days will have come from the realisation that not everyone else in his number is of the same stock. Doubtless he will have sat down and thought this through with Graham Gooch, his friend and mentor. Gooch led a difficult tour to Australia and knows that the collective will is severely tested by distraction and defeat.
Cook devotes his spare time to life on his wife's family farm and spends Friday nights at the pub with the locals. He cares little for impression or bling, just for results. He sets his jaw square, barely notices the swooning female menace around him, and goes about his business. The result is 25 Test match hundreds and a golden first year in the role of captain. Until Brisbane. And then Adelaide.
When the coin hangs in the air tomorrow morning, both men know that fate will ask its questions and take its hand. The cliché says that Ashes cricket defines you. When that coin lands both will know that the decisions they make over the days that follow will leave their mark. Then, not so far into the future, they will look back and realise that Ashes cricket did not define them at all. The game of cricket might have done, for blood and sweat will have been left on fields far and wide, but the great world spins and Ashes battles are but a part of that.
Fifty-one hundreds between them in 198 Test matches. That is some yield. Cook's runs are made with an honesty and dependability; Clarke's with greater freedom and reference to the aesthetics. They share mutually uncompromising gifts of patience and bloody-mindedness, and have played innings that saved the nation while others around them tripped and fell. Last summer in England, Clarke suffered the painful journey of expectation to failure. Now the same journey stares Cook in the face. His greatest achievement will be to avoid it. Only cricket can shift the emphasis so quickly and do so at the feet of so many people. When the coin goes up tomorrow, spare a thought for two of the game's most likeable and most successful men. Men whose own achievement will be the furthest thing from their minds.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK