England's best chance, but Australia seek redemption
Ricky Ponting is about to embark on his eighth Ashes campaign, and in that time he's seen the Anglo-Australian rivalry regenerate from its mid-nineties nadir to become arguably a bigger box-office event than at any time in its 133-year history. The rankings may state that this is a mid-table clash between Nos. 4 and 5 in the world, but thanks to the drama of England's 2005 triumph and the subsequent tug-of-war for the urn, the interest - in the opinion of both captains - has never been greater.
"Losing in 2005 [caused] a regeneration of Test cricket all around the world," Ponting said. "Test cricket was on everyone's lips again, it was an amazing series and a great one to be part of, although we lost. From that moment on, every series that we played has just grown and grown to the point where God knows how long we've been talking about this series in Australia. With sold-out crowds, it's a great time for cricket. We can't wait for it to finally be underway. The build-up has been immense."
"It's hard to get too excited by a series when one side is winning all the time," said Andrew Strauss. "The last few series have been closely fought contests, and that's a great thing for the game of cricket. I think everyone's looking to Test cricket to show its potential and show why we love it so much, and the last few Ashes series have been good examples of that, and if there's interest there that can only be good things as players going out to represent their countries. There are a lot of TV cameras here, a lot of people have spent a lot of money coming over here, and we thrive on the idea that we can pull off something special."
Strauss agreed with the notion that, given the relative states of the two teams, this series represents England's best opportunity to win in Australia for a generation. However, if they are to overcome their recent record of nine defeats in ten Tests in Australia, they may well have to do so over the dead body of the Aussie skipper himself. Faced with the unpalatable prospect of a third Ashes defeat as captain, Ponting has drawn his personal inspiration not from the events of 2005, but the more raw and recent setback in England last summer.
As far as Ponting is concerned, the forthcoming series is a redemption mission that was launched from the foot of the dais at The Oval on August 23 last year, when Strauss was presented with the trophy and set in motion the celebrations for England's second series win in the past three campaigns.
"Redemption is a big part of how we're playing this series," he said. "There's been a bit written this week about what I made the players do at The Oval last year. I made sure they all got down on the ground and they all took in our own disappointment, more the English excitement.
"I made sure that it hurt them as much as possible when the Ashes was being handed over to Andrew Strauss at The Oval. There's no doubt that's what's been driving certainly me after all the work that I've done, but every one of the players as well. It's about that empty feeling we had in our stomachs after walking off The Oval again after two successive Ashes tours. We want to make sure we don't have that feeling again."
While Doug Bollinger's omission from the final XI is officially due to a lack of match practice, the inclusion of Peter Siddle means that 10 of the 11 players who took the field for that Oval Test will be out there at the Gabba on Thursday morning, with the only absentee being Stuart Clark. Given Ponting's personal record in the opening Test of a series, in which he's scored 13 of his 39 centuries including four in Brisbane, England can expect to face a tide of pent-up desire over the coming five days, with the captain leading the charge.
That, of course, is nothing new in Ashes cricket, given how intense the focus has been on every microscopic moment of the past few series, most especially on this ground four years ago, when Steve Harmison's infamous freeze resulted in a first-ball wide to second slip and an instant surge of momentum for Australia.
"I don't think it's especially helpful to mention that first ball from four years ago," said Strauss. "We know pretty much who's going to be bowling that first ball - and we know pretty much he's got great control over the ball. But the first ball doesn't win or lose you the Ashes. The important thing is that people are clear in their minds about what they are going to achieve.
"You don't want to get too emotional on that first morning. It is important to commit to the plans that you have discussed, but the guys are in a good place psychologically and that is a good place to start any series. The time for Churchillian speeches has passed - the guys need calming not rousing."
Even a man as experienced as Ponting agreed with that sentiment. The final stages of his personal preparation involved a rare trip back to Sheffield Shield cricket with Tasmania, for whom he had not appeared since 2007. And while his personal returns were meagre, the opportunity for a change of scene was invaluable.
"It's been terrific," said Ponting. "It has given me the chance to focus on that and not wholly and solely think about the first ball of tomorrow's play. That can sometimes be the worst thing you can do as well, because if you start over-thinking things too much, that can often sidetrack you. [It] has freshened me right up and actually stop me thinking about tomorrow morning."
Nevertheless, if any psychological scars still remain from that Harmison delivery, and indeed Nasser Hussain's infamous decision to bowl first in 2002-03, Ponting was all too keen to pick at them. "Test cricket's about five long days over five different games," he said, "but there's no doubt the last series out here, the first hour set up our whole campaign.
"The way that we were able to capitalise on some very nervous English players that day definitely gave us a bit of a kick-start to the series and gave us all the confidence that we needed," he added. "Hopefully the same thing will happen tomorrow."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.