Australia prepares for sleepless nights, frets a little
SYDNEY: Australian cricket fans prepared themselves for one final decent night's sleep on Tuesday before seven weeks glued to television sets deep into the small hours watching the Ashes series beamed around the world from Europe.
And while confidence is high that the boys in the baggy green caps will return home triumphant from England for the first time since 2001, a few late jitters were evident in the usually solidly chauvinistic local media.
Former pace bowling great Glenn McGrath has already issued his traditional prediction of outright Australian domination, stretching credulity still further this year by forecasting a 10-0 sweep for his compatriots in a five-match series.
Local bookmakers were with him in sentiment if not the numbers, making Australia 2/5 favourites to win the series and retain the tiny urn that has symbolised Anglo-Australian sporting rivalry for more than a century.
Those numbers make perfect sense to anyone who watched England meekly capitulate in the 2013-14 series Down Under and then slump out of the group stage of 50-over World Cup earlier this year, leaving Australia unloved and unmourned.
And yet Ricky Ponting, who knows better than any Australian captain the pain of an Ashes defeat having experienced it three times, pinpointed the loss of Ryan Harris and new England coach Trevor Bayliss as factors that could alter the equation.
The loss of Harris to retirement in the wake of a knee injury last weekend, Ponting wrote in a column for Cricinfo, would alter the balance of the bowling attack, while Australian Bayliss could yet galvanise the England players.
"Around the time of the World Cup it looked as though England's players were scared of making mistakes and devoid of confidence in their ability," the retired batting great wrote.
"With Australia losing (Harris) and England gaining Bayliss, this Ashes contest is shaping up to be a little more close than it seemed to be a few months ago."
Cricket writer Cate McGregor dedicated an entire column in The Australian newspapers to omens suggesting Michael Clarke's team should have a "niggle of doubt" about opening the series at Cardiff's Sophia Garden on Wednesday.
Recalling how England forced a morale-boosting draw at the ground in the 2009 series, she also pointed out that Ponting's side were beaten by Bangladesh in Cardiff in a one-dayer on their 2005 tour. Australia lost both the 2005 and 2009 series.
"Nevertheless, form trumps omens, form and talent make history," she added reassuringly, before relapsing:
"But I cannot help noticing that dates for (Wednesday)'s clash in Cardiff are precisely the same as those for the opening of the 2009 rubber."