England are five days away from regaining the Ashes. It was the solitary salient fact that remained unalterable yesterday when precious little else was clear and it is the single issue that will drive the penultimate match of the series which starts in Leeds today.
Both sets of players are well aware what is at stake, both must try at all costs not to be distracted. England must feel that they can almost touch the trophy, Australia must sense that it is about to be grasped away.
“We have talked about it, but we're not going to dwell on it because sometimes the closer you are to something the harder it is to achieve it,” said the England captain Andrew Strauss.
“We will only achieve that by putting Australian under a lot of pressure and we will only achieve that by starting the game well.”
His Australian counterpart, Ricky Ponting said: “I have total confidence in all our players and I'm sure we can bring out our best cricket. The first match was the biggest game a lot of the players have played. This is a must-win game for us and hopefully we can get five good days' Test cricket and play our best. We’re not trying to get back for 2005. We just want to win this series.”
Neither of the combatants was certain last night what 11 players would take the field. England, as ever, were waiting with increasing anxiety on the fitness of their warrior all-rounder Andrew Flintoff, but there was a growing suspicion that Stephen Harmison would play in any event.
Australia, perhaps sensing that they need to make a change, were wrestling with permutations most of which involved whether they could play Brett Lee for the first time in this series.
The pastime of Flintoff watching was at its usual pre-match peak yesterday. Observers had to assess the depth of the bandages swathed round his right knee and the speed and intent of his bowling in the nets (purposeful but not at full tilt).
Strauss offered no definitive clue about whether Flintoff would play, partly because he could not be sure, or about the composition of the team either with him or without him. There was just enough evidence — though Sherlock Holmes would not consider it as sufficient for a persuasive denouement — to suppose that England would not pick a defensive team. They have pitched up in Leeds to win the Ashes, not to try to consolidate and bet the farm on the last match at The Oval.
“As a general point of view we have got two Test matches to go and we need to win one of them,” said Strauss. “Drawing Test matches is the last thing on our minds and will continue to be right through to the end of the Oval Test. In a way that's quite a liberating frame of mind to be in, for this Test in particular. A win here and it's all over so it's not very difficult to be in a positive frame of mind.”
As far as the captains were concerned all the players in the squads were available and being considered, notwithstanding the state of Flintoff's knee.
“It's not an ideal situation but that is the situation we're in,” said Strauss. “If Fred is fit to play a full part in the game we desperately want him to play. If he's not fit to play a full part it's wrong of us to pick him.”
Strauss simply could not say and he had instructed everybody from squad newcomer Jonathan Trott up to prepare to play.
If Flintoff is fit or not, England, if they are serious about winning, will play five bowlers to give themselves a real opportunity of bowling out their opponents twice. The pitches at Headingley so far this summer have been flat, but not high scoring. In two of the four matches, neither side made more than 300 in any innings and all but one have finished in draws.
If Flintoff is fit, England could and should take the bold step of dropping Stuart Broad and introducing Harmison who took 5 for 60 for Durham in Yorkshire'e first innings in a Championship match last month. Should Flintoff withdraw, Broad would be saved, but Harmison would still play.
Both Strauss and Andy Flower, the England coach, have spoken highly of Broad and the key part he will play in England's future, but that is then and this is now. As Strauss said of Flintoff there is no room for sentiment in picking him. That should apply to all.
It was at Headingley last year that England sprang their greatest selection surprise of the past half century by including Darren Pattinson, a fast bowler who learned all his cricket in Australia but was born in Grimsby. The selection of Trott, born in South Africa and who played for their under-19s, would not quite be in that category, but the fact he is in the squad is an indictment of the English academy system and its failure to produce players good enough for international cricket.