Newly confident England will try to land a damaging blow on tottering Australia by ending a 24-year losing streak at Brisbane’s Gabba in the keenly awaited Ashes series opener starting Thursday.
England, who unusually arrive well-prepared and injury-free, have not won the Brisbane Test since Mike Gatting’s team prevailed by seven wickets six tours ago - on their way to the tourists’ last Australian victory in 1986/87.
England could not find a tougher ground to launch their Ashes defence with Australia unbeaten in their last 21 Tests at the Gabba since losing to Viv Richards’s West Indians in 1988.
However, Ricky Ponting’s Australia have not won a Test since July, slipping below England in the world rankings, and are battling a raft of injuries and loss of form affecting key players.
Selectors surprised by leaving incumbent spinner Nathan Hauritz out of the 13-man squad and preferring untried left-arm orthodox spinner Xavier Doherty. Meanwhile, star batsman Michael Clarke is struggling with a back injury.
Clarke trained on Tuesday for the first time this week, later telling team-mates his back complaint was improving.
In contrast, England, under Andrew Strauss, have enjoyed a meticulous build-up to the opening Test, winning two of their three tour games and deprived only by the rain in the draw against South Australia.
Strauss comes into the series on the back of two centuries, while his opening partner Alastair Cook and Ian Bell have also scored hundreds.
Graeme Swann, touted as England’s big spinning weapon, twice took four wickets and pacemen James Anderson and Stuart Broad were also among the wickets.
“It can have a positive effect on us because it is more of a challenge if you win at Brisbane,” said senior batsman Paul Collingwood, who scored 206 at Adelaide in the last 2006/07 series in Australia.
“This is the ultimate, the biggest kind of challenge that you can have as a cricketer. That’s why we’re so excited. We’ve been waiting a long time. We have the belief and we are playing some very good cricket.”
While England are riding a wave of momentum, once-mighty Australia are a team immersed in unaccustomed doubt and introspection.
Ponting’s men have slipped to fifth on the ICC Test rankings, one below England, and the lowest Australia have been since the rankings first appeared in 2003.
Australia have lost their last three Tests, to Pakistan and India (twice), something that has not happened for almost 22 years.
Clearly Australia are no longer the all-conquering power they were only three years ago, when Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden helped dish out a 5-0 whitewash.
“It’s significant the knives are pointing at the home team. That’s very unusual,” former Australian Test coach John Buchanan said.
“Generally, teams travelling to Australia find it pretty difficult. But the boot is now on the other foot. The Australian team is copping a hammering and England are sailing nicely under the radar.”
Under Buchanan, Australia won 69 out of 90 Tests from 1999 to 2007, as well as three Ashes and two World Cups.
Now much hinges on the form of Ponting, who ranks second only to Sachin Tendulkar for most runs scored in Test cricket.
There has been a brittleness in the Australian batting order with pressure on 54-Test veteran Mike Hussey and erratic number six Marcus North to keep their spots, while Clarke (55.81), Simon Katich (33.56) and Shane Watson (48.00) are strong performers against England.
Katich, Doug Bollinger and fellow paceman Peter Siddle are all returning from recent injury problems, while Clarke remains in the balance after hurting his back during a domestic century this month.
England are banking on their three-pronged pace attack of Anderson, Broad and Steve Finn, backed by the top-ranked Test spinner Swann, to get them the 20 wickets they need to win matches.
Australia’s hopes lie with the moody left-armer Mitchell Johnson, backed up by Bollinger and Ben Hilfenhaus, to capitalise on home conditions and put pressure the England batsmen.
Much of England’s chances will also hinge on the explosive batting of Kevin Pietersen, who averages 50.73 in his 12 Ashes Tests, above his career 47.80 Test average.
HEAD TO HEAD AT GABBA
Played 18 Australia won 10, England 4, drawn 4.
Highest scores: Australia 645 (1946-47); England 464 (1970-71)
Lowest scores: Australia 58 (1936-37); England 79 (2002-03)
Biggest wins: Australia innings and 332 runs (1946-47), 384 runs (2002-03); England 322 runs (1936-37)
Highest individual score: Keith Stackpole (AUS) 207 (1970-71); Ian Botham (ENG) 138 (1986-87)
Best bowling (innings): Shane Warne (AUS) 8-71 (1994-95); Bill Voce (ENG) 6-41 (1936-37)