Everyone likes a happy ending
Sydney, New South Wales
"The England cricket team cordially requests your presence at a special party, to be held at the Sydney Cricket Ground on 7 January 2011, in honour of their demolition of the once-great Australian cricket team. Drinks will be served, plenty of them. Dress code: beaming smiles."
Let the old doubts go. Worry no more. At some point on Friday, England will beat Australia by an innings for the third time in four Tests to win the Ashes in utterly dominant fashion. It might well get a little noisy.
It's easy to take moments like this for granted. So many records have been set it's hard to take them all in. Curmudgeons might tell you it's only happening because Australia are so poor; after the thrashings in Adelaide and Melbourne, you might even be feeling a touch blasé.
Don't. These are special times for all England cricket fans. They should be savoured and celebrated, the carping and caveats left for darker days.
Scores are being made that were thought impossible. Wickets are being taken at a pace that shouldn't make logical sense. Scenes are unfolding that those of us lucky enough to witness are likely to be gushing about for years.
Four years ago at this ground, on the same day in the same month, England were being bowled out for 147 to seal an Ashes capitulation that could not have been more brutal or absolute. They were a shambles, a rudderless ship broken on the rocks and pulled apart by gleeful wreckers.
Not this time. As the shadows from the old green-roofed Members' Pavilion stretched across the outfield on Wednesday evening, Australia were reduced to 213-7, still 151 runs adrift of England's mammoth 644, their best players slumped in the home dressing-room and the entire ground awash with the celebratory songs of the travelling hordes.
England are just three wickets away from a crushing Ashes victory over Australia. Photo: Reuters
If that image doesn't do it for you, let's sample some of the stats. England's total was the highest they have ever made in Australia, bigger than the 636 compiled in the timeless Test here 82 years ago.
Their last five wickets alone put on 418, a new English record; it was the first time in Test history that the sixth, seventh and eighth-wicket partnerships have all produced 100 runs.
The tourists have now scored nine centuries in the series, more than they've ever achieved before in the Ashes, become only the third team in history to total more than 500 four times in a Test series and had Australia toiling in the field for more than 800 overs.
England's batsmen have made so much hay they could feed the field of the Grand National.
On Thursday it was Matt Prior's turn to harvest the runs, but Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann reaped full benefit too. The England supporters here in their thousands thought that was fun, but that was before Australia started batting.
The pitch is flat. You don't total 644 if it's a spitting turner. For Australia to then lose seven wickets for 171 said everything about the gulf in class and confidence between these two sides.
Having found it almost impossible to get an England wicket, Australia found new and remarkable ways to give theirs away.
Shane Watson has never been the most reliable between the wickets. His calling had already contributed to the run-outs of Simon Katich in the first over at Adelaide and Phillip Hughes in Melbourne, but those were by mere feet. This was the entire length of the pitch.
The expression on Watson's face summed up Australia's series: disbelief, pain, embarrassment. A few hours later, Mitchell Johnson was making the same slow journey from wicket to pavilion, gone for a golden duck in such ignominious circumstances that it felt rude to watch.
Johnson has been tormented by the Barmy Army throughout the series, that rather naughty song about his bowling echoing round the rafters from MCG to SCG. "We want Mitch!" they chanted as he walked to the crease, chin on chest, eyes downcast.
You could almost smell the bloodlust. When Chris Tremlett trampled his stumps a second later, the roof almost came off the Victor Trumper Stand.
Always a downbeat character, a maudlin look never far from his face, Johnson has undergone a prolonged character demolition in the last six weeks. You think he'd be kicking himself, but with his accuracy he'd probably miss.
Johnson will be back to fight again. One man who won't be is Paul Collingwood, who announced his retirement from Test cricket before play had begun.
Collingwood has endured a difficult series with the bat. But the news of his departure still brought a warm reaction from those who have watched him battle his heart out for England over the past six years.
As several people pointed out, if it hadn't been for his innings in Cardiff in 2009, England would now be regaining the Ashes rather than simply retaining them.
"I've never bought into that whole 'he doesn't have much talent' thing - it's a load of old nonsense," says Michael Vaughan, once Collingwood's England captain and now an expert summariser for Test Match Special.
"Anyone who can field like he can, bat like he can and bowl like he can has got a hell of a lot of talent.
"I think it's the manner in which he scores his runs that doesn't look as easy as some, but talent is more in the head than just your arms or legs moving, and in the head he has as much talent as anyone. Colly has tremendous mental strength.
"I'm glad he's going out in his own way. He's made his decision, and as much as part of him might want to be playing in the next Test, he goes out with another Ashes series victory, and it'll be a 3-1 victory too. He can go on to play one-day cricket while looking back and saying, 'I won three Ashes series'. Not many Englishmen can say that, particularly over the last 30 years.
"The one stat in cricket that no-one knows is how many runs he saves in the field every innings. He averages 40 with the bat, but I bet he saves at least 15 runs an innings with his fielding. And with all those wonderful catches he's taken that others wouldn't have, how many runs has he prevented batsmen going on to get?
"Then there's his attitude and positivity around the team. It's added so much to the team and the match positions it's been able to put itself in.
"In a group of very good fielders, he's led this team to go and get even better and better. He's set the bar so high, and the rest now aspire to that standard.
"His double-century against an Australian attack featuring Warne and McGrath was a fantastic innings. Cardiff last summer is right up there, as well as his hundred against South Africa in 2008, my last Test in charge. His career was extended because of that.
"What people don't realise is that he's been dogged by a lot of injuries down the years. There's always something wrong with his body - his back, his knees, ice-packs all over his hamstrings - he's always on the physio's couch or being massaged.
"He'll be missed by this team, because he's been a key tactician for Andrew Strauss. He's very clever on the game, and he does a lot of England's thinking. When they got Usman Khawaja on the sweep in the first innings, it was Colly who suggested bringing square leg up to tempt him. I'd be amazed if he doesn't make a great coach at some stage."
Collingwood is rumoured to be leading the England team onto the field on the final day of this Test. There have been worse ways to leave the old office.