No fear for England as four in a row looms

Whatever the pitches and whatever the attacks, England appear to have the stronger side, while Australia's bluff and bluster seems a sign of insecurity

It says much about the relative success of the current England side that they enter this Ashes series with the chance to emulate feats not achieved since the days of WG Grace.
It was 1890 when England last won four successive Ashes series. The days when this England team talked about 'legacy' are largely in the past, but Alastair Cook and co, with victories in the last three such encounters, may well never have a better opportunity to create a slice of Ashes history.
On the face of it, England should be strong favourites for this series. It is not just that they have won the last three Ashes series but they are also unbeaten in their last 13 Tests against all opposition and have won seven of the last 11 Tests against Australia. Australia, by contrast, have one win in 11 Tests against England and none in their past seven. They have won only one Test this year - in the first week of January - and have lost seven of the subsequent nine.
And yet there is a sense of a revival in this Australian team. After a series of panicked selections in the England summer - Phillip Hughes, Ashton Agar, Usman Khawaja et al - they appear to have found a unit that should see them through the series and, after the chaos that preceded the defeat in England, they at least have a settled coaching set-up now.
It remains to be seen how they react to adversity and setbacks - key characteristics of winning teams - and there must be some unease at the level of reliance upon a player as unpredictable as Mitchell Johnson. But this is a team with two fine quality, proven seamers in Peter Siddle and Ryan Harris, several good quality batsmen who should enjoy these conditions and an unbeaten record at this ground that stretches back a quarter of a century. The gap between them and England may well have narrowed.
There are some chinks in England's armour, too. They have yet to settle upon the second opening position or the No. 6 position since the retirements of Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood respectively. While Michael Carberry is an experienced, hungry cricketer, he has much to prove at this level, and there are lingering doubts about the potency of Chris Tremlett, who looks likely to return as England's third seamer. There is little evidence that, after a couple of serious injuries, he can recreate the form that rendered him so impressive in 2010-11.
Most of all, though, England's top order have to prove that their struggles of the previous series were an aberration. Jonathan Trott and Alastair Cook, who averaged 29.30 and 27.70 respectively in England, will need to deliver far more if their side are to prevail here. Much of the success of 2010-11 was built upon the top three seeing off the new ball and it remains a key ingredient to success.
"That's certainly an area we knew we'll have to do better in this series," Cook said. "We were 30 for 3 a number of times in England and I was partly responsible for that. It's an area we've spoken about and we know we have to get better. I'm happy with how I played in these warm-up games. I feel in a good place."
England's experience in Perth on the last tour might also encourage Australia. Confronted with an unusually quick and bouncy wicket, England were blown away by Harris and Johnson. If they are confronted by such pitches throughout the series - and they will certainly be a great deal quicker than those seen in England - England will have some tricky questions to answer. Generally, though, most of their bowlers and batsmen should enjoy such conditions as much as their Australian counterparts.
One problem that looks to have been resolved is the keeping issue. Matt Prior came through another vigorous training session on Wednesday without obvious reaction and looks very likely to play. As vice-captain, experienced player and a sound head on DRS calls, his availability will be a substantial comfort to Cook and co.
To read much of the Australian media in recent days, you would think the England team were a pretty hopeless bunch. Amid the storm of bluff and blunder, England have been accused of fear of Australia's bowling, a lack of pace with the ball and, variously, an arrogance and disregard for the rules of the game. Kevin Pietersen and Stuart Broad, in particular, are goaded and ridiculed at every opportunity.
But there is a sense that the tide of propaganda is a sign of insecurity. Certainly the best sides, the West Indies of the '80s and the Australians that followed, did not bother with such tactics and it was noticeable at the captains' pre-match media conferences that while Cook was calm and assured, Michael Clarke appeared more tense. It's hard to avoid the impression that much of the hubristic talk emanating from the Australian camp is an attempt to compensate and mask deep insecurities. Australia underestimate England at their peril.
Certainly the days when England approached a series in Australia with trepidation are gone. It is likely that nine of the 11 who play at the Gabba will have experienced Ashes success in Australia before. They know they can win here now.
"There's no reason to feel intimidated," Cook said. "A lot of players in this squad were here in 2010-11, so we've all got experience of winning in Australia. We're trying to use that to the best of ability and we know how important this game was last time for setting up the series."
Indeed, such is the sense of the Gabba as one of the last remaining fortresses in Australian cricket, that it is possible that defeating the hosts here could prove a fatal blow in terms of the rest of the series. The self-confidence they talk about at every opportunity can only be thin as it rooted in belief rather than achievement.
And there's the rub for Australia, for whatever the pitches and whatever the attacks, England still appear to have the stronger side. There are, by a generous assessment, four great players involved in this series - Pietersen, Cook, Swann and Clarke - and three of them play for England. Australia may well be on the rise and England may be coming towards the end of their period of success, but in this series at least, they should still have just about enough to retain the Ashes.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo