Of all the observations to choose from in the usual pre-Ashes talkfest, one looked more widely at the looming series than most. That it came from Shane Warne was at once surprising and telling, for he has shared his time more evenly between Australia and England than just about anyone else to be signed up to the airwaves this summer.
"The biggest shift over the last few years is, they don't fear Australia anymore," Warne said. "England no longer fear Australia and haven't for a long time and hence that's why they can beat Australia."
Warne, of course, was a lead actor in the series that shattered that fear - the epochal 2005 encounter. The central figures in this forthcoming bout are the captains, Steven Smith and Joe Root, who have each grown up amid this new reality. Root has admitted to skiving off school in order to watch the last day of that series at home. Smith, meanwhile, was also glued to the television in his parents' Sutherland Shire home, coming to terms with the fact that Australia's previous dominance was at an end.
Both, therefore, have learned their games amid this changed landscape, and experienced its resultant fluctuations. Smith's first experience of Ashes cricket was a comprehensive Australian defeat in 2010-11, Root's a solid English victory in 2013. Their roles were then reversed in 2013-14, the summer the hosts this week have gone out of their way to talk about, while the tourists riposte by questioning its relevance. Either way, Smith and Root were shaped by the way that series played out, and will take those learnings into this contest.
For a Yorkshireman, many of Root's influences are remarkably Australian. This arguably stems from the fact that Darren Lehmann added a good deal of Antipodean attitude to Yorkshire during his long and prolific stint as their overseas player. By the time Root was emerging as a player of note, having scooped up armfuls of junior trophies, the Darren Lehmann Cricket Academy in Adelaide was seen as a sound pathway for players wanting to polish their games while un-varnishing their on-field vocabularies.
"Root and Smith also share some commonalities as batsmen. Their favoured scoring areas are midwicket and cover, and both are most likely to be dismissed in the arc between the wicketkeeper and the slips"
In 2010-11, Root played for Prospect in Adelaide grade competition, making 262 runs at a modest 29.11 but learning plenty about the game. He shared a dressing room with a young Nathan Lyon, who was in the process of being fast-tracked from Prospect to South Australia to the Test team in a matter of months. Root came home from that season on a similar steep trajectory, making his Yorkshire debut in 2011 and then gaining a first England cap in late 2012.
Smith also learned plenty of his game on the opposite side of the globe. In fact, he may actually have played for England had he so chosen - with dual citizenship, he is currently as ineligible for Australia's Federal Parliament as Barnaby Joyce. During an influential 2007 season in Kent, a teenaged Smith deflected attempts by Surrey to sign him as a local player. Even after he joined the Australian team for the first time in 2009-10, English influences remained: the nickname "Smudge" was bestowed by Michael Hussey, who had picked it up as a common sobriquet for a Smith or two during his time with Northamptonshire.
Apart from the nickname, Smith also learned much about the hard side of international cricket during his early stint. He was sledged relentlessly by a triumphant England during the 2010-11 series, while at the same time having his technique pulled apart by James Anderson in particular. He also observed the training and lifestyle habits of Ricky Ponting, among others, and resolved to improve his diet and exercise regimen to shed the "puppy fat" he then carried. At the same time, he started to think in terms of captaincy, aided by a swift elevation to leadership of Sydney Sixers in the inaugural Big Bash League in 2011-12.
By the time Smith and Root first crossed paths during the 2013 Ashes in England, Root was already a firm member of the home XI, elevated from the middle order to open alongside Alastair Cook. As the recipient of a David Warner punch in a Birmingham nightclub during the Champions Trophy that preceded the Ashes, Root unwittingly played a key role in the appointment of Lehmann to coach Australia.
Smith, meanwhile, was a late inclusion in the touring party, then thrust into the XI at No. 6. Both he and Root wrestled with their respective commissions but also produced one big innings apiece - Root's second-innings "daddy" hundred at Lord's sealed a decisive 2-0 lead for England, then Smith's freewheeling first Test century, at The Oval, helped raise optimism for the Australians to carry home despite their defeat.
As a pair of young players, both Root and Smith were carried with that prevailing tide. Smith had little impact on either of the first two Tests, but feasted on short bowling by an increasingly frustrated England at the WACA Ground and then carved out another hundred at the SCG in what was more 5-0 victory party than Test match for Michael Clarke's team. Root, by contrast, fell amid the shuddering England collapse on day two at the Gabba and never really recovered, being dropped from the team before the series concluded. Notably he was troubled less by Mitchell Johnson than Ryan Harris, Shane Watson and Nathan Lyon.
Equally, the barbs of Australian crowds and players caused Root's stiff upper lip to quiver ineffectually at the WACA Ground, when at the start of the second innings he followed Ian Bell and Matt Prior into a slanging match with David Warner. Throughout the series, whether through Harris' skill, Johnson's pace or the generally hostile environment, England were often goaded into abandoning their usual methodical ways. As though trying to follow the stoicism of Cook and the coach Andy Flower, Root retreated into himself while soaking up 577 balls for a mere 192 runs. Smith's own contribution was far from swift (327 runs at 40.87, strike rate 51.25) but demonstrated a balance between attack and defence that England lacked.
In the following 18 months, Smith established himself in the team while rising steadily up the batting order, and at the same time becoming a serious subject in conversations about future leadership. Root, too, was growing into a player of seniority, though the pair's experiences of first-class captaincy could not have been more different. With a double of 75 and 103 not out in the final, Smith led New South Wales to the Sheffield Shield at the end of March. Little more than a month later, Root and his bowlers were unable to defend a fourth-innings target of 472 against Middlesex on an improving Lord's pitch against a clinical Chris Rogers: 241 not out for the Australian, and the dressing-room bestowal of a new nickname, "craptain", for Root.
"Smith's first experience of Ashes cricket was a comprehensive Australian defeat in 2010-11, Root's a solid English victory in 2013. Their roles were then reversed in 2013-14"
Nevertheless, his growth as a batsman, reconnecting with freer-scoring ways, made Root the single most positive element of the Peter Moores era, afflicted as it was by the underperformance of others and the seemingly endless Kevin Pietersen saga. By May of 2015, Moores was gone, soon to be replaced by Trevor Bayliss, but Root was England's player of the year - the result of burnishing his strengths rather than fussing over any weaknesses. "I think when I came back from Australia I realised that a lot of the time out there I was trying to work on things I wasn't too good at, and putting all my energy into that, rather than spending more time strengthening the stuff I am good at," he said at the time. "I think I was so desperate to do well that I ended up hindering myself."
Smith had already captained Australia after Clarke was injured during 2014-15. It was an emotionally draining summer, forever to be associated with the death of Phillip Hughes but also punctuated by a home World Cup triumph in which Smith struck the winning runs at the MCG. Confidence from that tournament, plus a canter to victory in the West Indies, had a hubristic Australia arriving in England for the Ashes. For all the work he had done to make smart decisions as a batsman, Smith got caught up in it too.
"I can't wait to get over there and play another Ashes against England in their conditions after beating them so convincingly in Australia," he said before the tour. "It's going to be nice to go in their backyard. If we continue to play the way we have been playing over the last 12-18 months, I don't think that they'll come close to us, to be honest."
The scoreboards show that this was a foolhardy claim, as the Australians failed badly to adapt to seaming conditions whether in terms of technique or selection, while Smith's series oscillated wildly from big scores at Lord's and The Oval to fidgety ineffectiveness in the pivotal Birmingham and Nottingham Tests. Newly anointed vice-captain to Cook, Root reaped fewer runs but far greater influence, whether it was a commanding century - having been dropped early by Brad Haddin - in Cardiff or a foot-on-the-throat 130 after Australia had been razed for 60 at Trent Bridge.
Root ended the series in a fit of giggles, thanks to an accidental double entendre from Cook, at a post-match press conference after Australia's consolation win in the final Test. But he was there as England's Man of the Series, and captain-in-waiting. For Smith the formalities of the office had actually been bestowed in the sleepy surrounds of Northampton between the fourth and fifth Tests, following Clarke's decision to retire from the game. So it was that the pair was set on a collision course for the Gabba this week.
Apart from their similar ages and faces devoid of hair, Root and Smith also share some commonalities as batsmen. According to CricViz analysis, their favoured scoring areas are midwicket (20% for Root, 19.5% for Smith) and cover (20% and 19%), while both are most likely to be dismissed in the arc between the wicketkeeper and the slips (48% and 40%). In terms of the correct length to bowl to them, fuller offerings are far more likely to bring an error: Root averaging 51.67 on the front foot and 60.83 on the back, while Smith's split is 59.24 and 67.92.
Greater contrast can be found in how they move at the crease - Smith across his stumps, Root more classically forward or back. Then there is the approach to the spinners: a dancing Smith has ventured out of his crease to 8% of all deliveries faced, whereas Root has done so just a mere 2% of the time. In recent Asian Tests, Smith has tempered his tendency to jump out at the spinners, but he is more likely to do so in Australia, where pace and bounce are more consistent.
As intense devourers of the game, Root and Smith have also tried to find ways to seek reward or escape from its pressures. For several years Root has travelled with a ukulele in tow, on which he can commonly be found strumming tunes by Oasis or the Arctic Monkeys. In a nod to his earlier days of occasionally eating a packet of M&Ms for dinner, Smith now rewards himself for each international century by eating a block of chocolate, a tip picked up from the former Sydney Swans AFL player Adam Goodes.
As leaders, Smith is the more experienced both before and during international captaincy, but Root can tend towards the more adventurous in terms of tactics and ideas. Both can expect to be tested for patience and mental reserves when batting, after the fashion of contemporary Test match tactics. Heavy, too, will be the weight of their own expectation, for a poor series with the bat for either captain would more or less ensure defeat for his team.
In the words of the former Hampshire captain Mark Nicholas: "They're both top-class players and the first thing they've got to do is make runs. It's very hard as a captain if you're not making runs, I don't care how gifted you are, how comfortable you are in your own skin. Tactically they're both learning. Root is more inclined to the unorthodox than Smith, who is more inclined to resort to the obvious in a practical way - and I don't mean that as a criticism. Captaincy's changed at the international level now, because of the way guys bat they are more likely to deny attacking players and force an error than they are to attack a player."
Given Australia's recent history of batting collapses, Root has a pair of perceptive and vastly experienced fast bowlers in Anderson and Stuart Broad to test the hosts' patience. He may also be reinforced by Ben Stokes at some point in the series. However, he lacks the sheer speed and shock value open to Smith, via Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins in particular. Equally, Josh Hazlewood has the combination of bounce, pace and seam movement to discomfort Root's own methods. Ian Chappell sees the contrast in bowling resources as the key.
"I think Steve Smith holds the advantage with the two genuine quick bowlers in Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc," he said. "In Australia, if you are struggling for wickets you can always resort to a bit of short-pitched stuff, and that is more easily done with genuine pace. England have a good attack but I am just not sure how they will go if the Kookaburra isn't doing much. That will be a real challenge for them and Joe Root."
Smith, then, has the pace-bowling weaponry and the home ground advantage, but Root has none of the old fear Warne spoke about. Theirs is an Ashes script about to be written.