Australia captain Michael Clarke at a training session. (AP)
Brisbane: Michael Clarke is giving nothing away on the eve of the Ashes. Not his starting XI, not comparisons between this and the previous series, not praise nor predictions, not even observations on England.
Outwardly, the captaincy style harks back to another era, back in the mid-1980s when Australia was struggling in the international arena. And with good reason - England is in Australia with a settled squad and favored to win a fourth consecutive Ashes series for the first time since the 1880s.
Clarke and the Australians will have to be at their grittiest best to stop them.
Australia's squad is more settled than it was during the tumultuous buildup to the last Ashes series in England, which only finished in August with the home team as 3-0 victors. England has won eight of the last 15 Ashes tests, and won four of the five Ashes series since ending Australia's dominating run with a home triumph in 2005.
In the weeks leading up to the last Ashes series, Cricket Australia fired South African Mickey Arthur as coach - bringing in former test batsman Darren Lehmann as a late replacement - and suspended opener David Warner after a night club incident. The squad never seemed to recover, but is outwardly showing signs of growing confidence ahead of a home series.
"We've played a lot more cricket now as a group. The five tests in England helped us as a group," Clarke told a news conference Wednesday at the Gabba, less than 24 hours before the five-test series was due to start. "It would be silly to compare where we were then compared with where we are now. Different series, different conditions."
Rival players have been trading barbs in the media and on social networks in recent days, with Kevin Pietersen and Stuart Broad having plenty to say for England, and Warner and co. firing salvos from Australia.
It's all hype, Clarke said, and means nothing come Thursday morning. He didn't respond to questions about Broad, Pietersen's 100th test cap or the chances of wicketkeeper Matt Prior recovering from injury to play in the first test for England.
The Australian lineup is more stable than it was five months ago, with Shane Watson recovering from a hamstring strain to take his place at the top of the order and also offering to bowl some overs if he's needed to cover the pace group of Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and the returning Mitch Johnson.
Clarke said he knows his batting lineup from No. 1-7, but won't reveal it until after the starting XI is announced before the toss. The only uncertainty seems to be whether Australia will play spinner Nathan Lyon or go for another pace option with allrounder James Faulkner.
Warner returned midway through the last Ashes series but didn't cement his spot in the order, and was one of six batsmen tried at No. 6 as selectors searched for a replacement for the retired Mike Hussey.
He was dropped from a subsequent limited-overs tour to India but has regained form with multiple centuries in domestic cricket and will open the innings. George Baily earned a shot to bat at No. 6 on the basis of his form while leading Australia in India when Clarke was sidelined with a back problem. That should be the only change at the top of the order from the team Australia fielded in the fifth test at The Oval.
Clarke batted and bowled in the nets on Wednesday, and said he's ready to contribute with bat and ball if required in Brisbane.
Australia hasn't lost a test at the Gabba in 25 years, and the Brisbane venue has become something of a fortress as the start of each test series.
"The belief is there," Clarke said. "Hopefully we'll show that over the next five test matches."
Australia (from): David Warner, Chris Rogers, Shane Watson, Michael Clarke (captain), Steve Smith, George Bailey, Brad Haddin, Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle, Ryan Harris, Nathan Lyon, James Faulkner.