The ridiculous hyperbole is all but over and, at long last, facts are all that matter at Lord's on Thursday.

The Ashes series starts after six weeks of artificial cricket in which all sorts of media pundits who should know better have clutched at pointers for the five Tests.

After a Twenty20 Cup match Australia were ridiculed and so it went on, with the best side in world cricket told they were too old and the home squad over-praised to an embarrassing degree.

The last week of the interminable one-day contests also produced an equally silly cloud of pessimism about home hopes, but the truth is somewhere in between.

The facts are these. The Australians came here totally under-cooked after a lengthy break, with England steamrollering Bangladesh but, since then, the cards have all fallen Ricky Ponting's way.

They have got better and better and now have only one question mark to answer - that of the fourth bowler behind Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and Shane Warne.

The batting has clicked into top gear, except for Matthew Hayden whose bully-boy tactics have mostly misfired, but boosted by Justin Langer who missed the one-dayers. With Adam Gilchrist dropping to No 7 and Warne coming in at No 8, they look as formidable a unit as ever.

England might have won seven successive series and certainly have become more competitive, but one or two selections in the past 12 months have done no favours to anyone, including those players concerned - Robert Key, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen.

Bell should have gone to South Africa instead of Key, but misplaced loyalty decided otherwise.

Bell and Pietersen should have played against Bangladesh, but the same sort of loyalty meant Graham Thorpe played and appeared to have done enough to keep his place this week.

But, as Michael Atherton said yesterday: "You didn't need a crystal ball to see that Ian Bell would make runs against the Bangladesh piethrowers, that Pietersen would push his claims in the one-day series and that, consequently, the selectors would find themselves in a pickle.

"Now, Pietersen must make his debut in the most eagerly-awaited Test match of the last two decades, instead of having had a cosy introduction into Test cricket.

"England's middle order of Bell, Pietersen, Andrew Flintoff and Geraint Jones looks a little flakey to me. None has played a Test against Australia. Some would say that is an advantage, others might say it is a touch reckless. I'd lean towards the latter."

Agreed. Not since Graeme Hick in 1991 has any England cricketer made his debut under a heavier weight of media and public expectation than will Pietersen in three days' time. Atherton's rationale looks spot on.

The rest of the batting looks equally suspect; Marcus Trescothick slaughtered the innocents in May and June but, with one exception at Headingley 11 days ago, he has looked a sitting duck against McGrath.

The 35- year- old star bowler made no excuses the day that the left-hander scored an impressive century but he was suffering after a return trip from Leeds to Heathrow to collect his wife.

An absence of a driving licence prevented a breakdown being dealt with speedily and he was distinctly under-slept before that Trescothick hundred.

Andrew Strauss will learn the true meaning of the phrase "Test cricket" - namely a test of everything in a man's technique and temperament. After a marvellous first year in international cricket, he is faced with two major problems which McGrath and Lee have exposed and will continue to probe.

As big a worry is the form and fitness of Michael Vaughan. His "slight" groin strain kept him out of Yorkshire's C&G quarter-final on Saturday although Matthew Hoggard did play.

His form, as with Trescothick, is well short of his best and it might be worth noting that his best series was against Australia under Nasser Hussain, when he opened the innings.

Now, he is captain and will bat at No 3 - an entirely different scenario. He is more likely to come in early and, as often as not when England bowl first, have to re-focus after several draining sessions in the field.

Then there is the England bowling. Steve Harmison and Andrew Flintoff hold the key. Only if they are able successfully to rough up a terrificlooking top order will England remain competitively in the series. Simon Jones and Hoggard are dependent upon swing and any lapses in length or line will be seized on mercilessly.

That leaves Ashley Giles, who holds one of the keys to the series if he can give his captain control in the field. He couldn't do it in the West Indies last year but made a remarkable comeback last summer - particularly against the left-handers and Australia have three in the top seven.

They are bound to target the Warwickshire spinner, just as they did Harmison at the Oval last week, knowing that a successful dart would force Vaughan to look for a Plan B if he cannot get at least 20 overs in a day from Giles.

Bob Woolmer believes that Gilchrist holds the key. Umpire David Shepherd favours Australia to win 3-1 and says "to win, England will need more than 300 and have all hands to the pump." Bob Willis agrees, saying: "If England don't score 350 runs, they will lose the match. It is as simple as that."

Darren Lehmann says: "To beat Australia, you have to put pressure on the bowlers and make at least 400."

On a scale of 1-10 on the comfort scale, Australia's batting is at least eight and the bowling seven. England 's two departments rate no higher than five. England are likely still to be looking for only their second win at Lord's against Australia in 26 attempts in more than 100 years after the dust has settled on this week's first Test.