By Nick Mulvenney
The second leg of an Ashes double-header unique in the 131 years of such contests gets underway in Brisbane on Thursday with everything bar the eternal optimism of the Australian nation pointing to a fourth successive England triumph.
With the dominant 3-0 success on home soil still fresh in the memory, England can justifiably approach a trip Down Under with more confidence than at any time since the 1970s, when World Series cricket tore the heart out of the home side.
The core of an England side unbeaten in tests this year has very happy memories of their last trip in 2010-11, when they hammered Australia 3-1 to win the Ashes on foreign soil for the first time in 24 years.
That feeling has been compounded by the conviction that they won in England with something to spare and their vaunted batting line-up can only do better than they did in the five home tests.
“I think Australia will suit our batsmen a bit more than English conditions,” England paceman Stuart Broad said last week.
“We had these sort of slow, turning wickets that are quite hard to score on and we’ve got guys who cut and pull, free-scoring players, and I think our batsmen are very excited to play here and will thrive in the Australian conditions.”
And yet, despite losing seven of their last nine tests and drawing the other two, there is also a growing feeling of confidence in Australia.
The hosts feel the series in England was closer than the scoreline suggested, their batting line-up is more settled than it has been for a while and that if their quick bowlers can fire on the hard home decks, they can really trouble England.
There was little chance that their preparations for the second series could be disrupted as much as those for the first, when coach Mickey Arthur was sacked and opener David Warner was stood down for punching England’s Joe Root in a bar.
The excellent bowling performance of Ryan Harris in England was one reason for the growing optimism and the injury-prone paceman articulated the feeling of the Australia camp after the squad was announced for the Gabba.
“It’s time we brought the urn home and we know that,” he said. “You always have pressure at this level and there is extra after not winning the last few series.
“But if we play our best cricket we will win. We believe in each other.”
Australia have been forced by injury to take a gamble on pace bowler Mitchell Johnson recapturing his best form after four years of erratic performances which have made him the favourite target of England’s Barmy Army of fans.
In addition, Harris’s fragile frame is unlikely to last the full five tests so Australia will be hoping the recuperation of James Pattinson and Jackson Bird continues to go well.
Another gamble was on the uncapped George Bailey for the vacant number six batting spot and while the 31-year-old does not have great red ball pedigree, he has shown a remarkable ability to step for his country in Twenty20 and one-day internationals.
All-rounder Shane Watson’s talent is in no doubt but a hamstring injury has disrupted his preparations and the decision over whether he will be able to bowl in the first test is likely to be taken on the first morning at the Gabba.
Despite those small flies in the ointment, Australia captain Michael Clarke has been trumpeting the new optimism like a politician on the campaign trail.
“I think the team is in a fantastic place and the feeling in the group is outstanding,” he said in Sydney last week.
“I think the boys are flying. They’re all looking forward to Thursday week.”
The Australian weather means England’s preparations have not been perfect but, apart from a calf injury to wicketkeeper Matt Prior, they have not seen much to darken their collective mood.
“As a team, I think we can take a lot of confidence about how we’ve performed over a the last 18 months or so,” said Broad.
“We’ve had games where we’ve not been that good but got away with draws when we shouldn’t have done. We’ve got a really steely unit in that changing room.”
Jonny Bairstow is on standby should Prior fail to prove his fitness, while opener Michael Carberry looks set to make his Ashes debut at the Gabba with Root moving down to number six in the batting order.
Australia, though, has never been an easy place to tour for any England side.
Their last win at the Gabba came in 1986 and their most recent victory in Perth, venue for the third test, goes even further back to the 1978-79 tour.
The decision to move the Australia-hosted Ashes out of its proximity to the limited overs World Cup in the cricketing calendar means only 88 days will have past between the two series this year.
There has been no sign of any Ashes fatigue setting in, though, and ticket sales have been brisk for all the matches, which also include tests in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
“The Aussie public have got an excitement from feeling their side is a bit more settled and are really coming for us,” added Broad.
“And we’ve a lot of confidence in our own ability and I think if I was a fan I’d be really excited about this series, it’s going to be extremely entertaining.”
By Nick Mulvenney