In two countries separated by the width of the planet, a hush is about to descend. The first delivery of an Ashes series is a moment of great cricketing import, largely because it is so often a harbinger of the thousands more that will follow.
Very often, the first ball seems to set the tone – whether it clatters the stumps or gets creamed to the boundary. For that moment, everything will go silent. Then the chatter will resume, as it has to do, because the Ashes involves five Test matches each lasting up to five days, in each of the five main Australian cities, on 25 of the next 44 days.
The silence will be a relief: each time England and Australia meet in the most enduring and evocative bilateral contest in sport, the hype gets more intense. And this time it has taken on a most unusual quality. Normally when England travel south, they spend the period of warm-up matches scurrying round the continent like demented dingoes, chasing their own tails, while the Australian war machine calmly readies itself for action.
This time the roles are reversed. The England selectors could have named their preferred 11 players three months ago and that is precisely the team, barring last-minute accidents, that will take the field. Australia’s batting line-up is collectively out of form and their selectors are in such disarray that they named a squad of 17 only last week (in a ceremony outside Sydney Opera House, which would have been an ill-judged stunt even if it hadn’t rained).
It was Saturday before their selectors finally decided to axe Nathan Hauritz, their incumbent spin bowler, and replace him with the obscure 28-year-old left-armer Xavier Doherty. It is not clear what their strategy is; they may be working their way through every letter of the alphabet.
It is a good idea for an Englishman to make such jokes now.
The first ball may just change all the perceptions, Doherty may be on the brink of stardom. The last five Ashes series in Australia have all been massacres; England have not won one here since 1986-87, and on that occasion the boot at this stage was on the other foot – England were in chaos and Australia supremely confident.
Four years ago Australia won 5-0. That, however, was the last hurrah of the great Shane Warne. After he retired, England regained the Ashes at home, and this will be the first Warneless series over here in two decades: the world’s number one spin bowler is now English: the perky Northampton boy Graeme Swann.
Warne, meanwhile, in full motormouth mode to promote his new TV chat show, is shouting from the sidelines, complaining that the Aussies have got the wrong man and should have stuck with Hauritz.
The Australian spring has been cool and damp, and the weather in Brisbane for the next week is expected to be mild and showery, which should favour England.
Australia are further endangered by an injury threat to their vice-captain Michael Clarke. Usman Khawaja, 23, Pakistan-born but a dinki-di Aussie, is on standby to become the country’s first Muslim cricketer.
One punter has placed £250,000 ($395,000) on England to win the series at 13-8. Logically that would seem a good bet. And the prime objective for England, if not for the punter, is simply a drawn series which, under the ancient customs governing this contest, would enable England to retain the Ashes.
There is, however, another ancient custom which is also relevant: expect the unexpected.