- Australia v England, 3rd Test, Perth
Australia and England on the brink
December 13-17, WACA Ground
Start time 1030 (0230 GMT)
Australia will pick up the Ashes or England will pick up the pieces. This much can already be concluded as the two sides prepare for the third Test in Perth, a ground where the fifth day is often surplus to requirements on fast-paced pitch that can be the catalyst for cricket of breathtaking speed.
Take last year's encounter between Australia and South Africa for example. The hosts were happy enough to bowl Graeme Smith's side out for 225 on day one, but found themselves back in the field after lunch the following afternoon having been razed for 163. Smith and Hashim Amla then showed runs can be collected as swiftly as wickets in a rollicking stand of 178 that broke Australian spirits and set the Proteas on the path to a 309-run triumph. If a team gets on a roll, there is no better place to exploit it fully than the WACA ground.
England, of course, are a team in desperate need of one such turnaround. By the end of Adelaide the tourists' faces bore the thousand yard stares of their forebears, either against Australia in 2006-07 or the West Indies in the preceding decades. The rhetoric emanating from the captain Alastair Cook has been frank and bordering on the stirring, but he and the rest of his senior players must back it up with action on a pitch that will aid Australia's pacemen more than either Brisbane or Adelaide did. A team of great method has looked increasingly scatterbrained, hitting out wildly or surrendering limply. While Graeme Swann joined teammates in denying he was scared of Johnson, he did admit that "sometimes you see people play more shots than normal because of the surge of adrenaline", a statement that summed up the visitors' batting thus far. Of greater hope for England is the fact that Perth's pace and swing will be welcome for Stuart Broad and James Anderson - it is not beyond either of them to cut through Australia's batsmen in the dramatic style required to keep the series open.
As for Michael Clarke's team, it is a case of carrying on in the same style. Aggressive, focused, settled and hungry, they have not allowed the pressure of the series nor the weight of three consecutive Ashes defeats to cloud their minds from fierce concentration on the next ball, the next over and the next hour. With a day less time to recover than England's seamers, the Australian fast men are bowling minimally in preparation, but can be expected to recalibrate their sights smoothly enough. The major question mark based on recent history surrounds the batsmen. With the urn in sight, might they contrive to produce the sort of disastrous session that dogged them through most of 2013?
Players to watch
A year ago, Mitchell Johnson made his return to Test matches and collected six wickets for the match against South Africa. It was the start of a regeneration that has peaked in Brisbane and Adelaide with fearful speed and startling effect on England. Returning to the ground he now calls home, Johnson knows one or two more spells of his best may be enough to secure the Ashes for Australia. So far he has done just about all that could be asked of a fast bowler, but there is one element that he will hope for in Perth - the late swing that he conjured here in 2010 against England would be lethal to batsmen now conditioned to sit on the back foot against him out of fear that their next ball will whir straight into their armpit or throat.
Australia's sustained battering of Alastair Cook has worn down the England captain almost as much as the failures of his fellow batsmen. In the second innings in Adelaide he resolved to counter-attack, but a top-edged hook and an early exit was the result. Perth can become an ideal place to bat provided the new ball is warded off by sound judgment and unflappable character, making Cook's influence at the top all the more critical. He made a century at the ground in a losing cause in 2006 when England last lost the Ashes. Another such score in his 100th Test would make Australia's task far harder than it currently appears.
Nathan Lyon is likely to play for the hosts, while Ryan Harris has shrugged off his usual knee soreness and is set to back up after his Adelaide exertions. Nathan Coulter-Nile is set to be 12th man after James Faulkner suffered a thumb fracture.
Australia (possible) 1 Chris Rogers, 2 David Warner, 3 Shane Watson, 4 Michael Clarke (capt), 5 Steven Smith, 6 George Bailey, 7 Brad Haddin (wk), 8 Mitchell Johnson, 9 Peter Siddle, 10 Ryan Harris, 11 Nathan Lyon.
Tim Bresnan is likely to make his return, a valued team man and reliable seamer in a time of need. Monty Panesar is the man most likely to make way, though England might also consider shelving Swann for the height and pace of Boyd Rankin. Joe Root and Kevin Pietersen would then constitute the team's spin contingent.
England (possible) 1 Alastair Cook (capt), 2 Michael Carberry, 3 Joe Root, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Ian Bell, 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Matt Prior (wk), 8 Stuart Broad, 9 Tim Bresnan, 10 Graeme Swann, 11 James Anderson.
Pitch and conditions
The first glimpse of the WACA ground surface revealed a hard but well-grassed strip that looked likely to reap plenty of catches in the slips cordon. Perth's weather forecast is unforgiving - blue skies and temperatures hovering around 38C for the whole of the match.
Stats and trivia
- England have won only once in 12 visits to the WACA ground, against an Australian side emasculated by Kerry Packer defections in 1978-79
- Australia's recent record at the WACA ground is far from spotless, having won three matches against West Indies, England and India but lost three against India and South Africa twice since their great team began to dismantle in 2007
- Only the Don Bradman-inspired Australians of 1936-37 have managed to win an Ashes series from 2-0 down after the first two matches
"We have grabbed the momentum in this series, we want to run with it, and there is no better place to do that than Perth. If you take the initiative in Perth it can be a very hard place for the other side to drag it back."
Michael Clarke, Australia's captain
"When things don't go well as a captain, it's a tough, tough place to be but I am still looking forward to the fight and still wanting to get out there - which is a good sign - and desperate to try to use all my experience and knowledge as a young leader to try to turn this around."
Alastair Cook challenges himself.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here