It took 16 years of ridicule, heartache and hard yakka to regain cricket's most prized possession but it could take fewer than 26 days for England to hand it back. The Ashes will reach a premature and unwelcome climax at the WACA in Perth this weekend if Andrew Flintoff's side perform as they did in Brisbane and Adelaide, and lose the third Test against Australia.
The results in the opening two Tests, which Australia ended up winning comfortably, suggest that the little urn is returning Down Under, and England need to be bold if they are to keep the series alive.
They were given a faint glimmer of hope yesterday when Shane Warne hurt his right elbow during fielding. But it appears to be only a brief flicker. After treatment, the leg-spinner rejoined practice and team management were very keen to play down the chances of him missing tomorrow's match.
Caution has dominated England's thinking in Australia and they have paid for it dearly. Instead of being bold and picking relatively inexperienced bowlers that were match fit and in form, they selected old favourites still recovering from injury. The policy needs to be abandoned before it is too late.
At 2-0 down England have to gamble. They need to back their top seven batsmen to score the runs required to put Ricky Ponting's side under pressure and pick a bowling attack that is capable of taking 20 wickets. The tail may be weaker but so what? The extra batting ability of Geraint Jones and Ashley Giles is yet to produce, and it is unlikely to against bowlers of the quality of Warne. Giles has to make way for Monty Panesar and Sajid Mahmood should replace James Anderson.
Stephen Harmison continues to struggle for form and wickets but he must play. There is gossip that he may be axed but if this is the case they may as well send him home. The WACA pitch may not possess the pace and bounce of a few years ago but it will have more in it than Adelaide. Despite his problems, Harmison remains the pivotal figure of England's attack. Figures of 1-99 in the two-day match against Western Australia suggest he is still some way short of his best, but he bowled better than that.
There are rumours that Harmison is currently looking through the Yellow Pages for a wicket and England will be hoping that when he locates one, others will come in a rush. Technical faults have been identified by television but the biggest problem is his fitness and confidence.
Without wishing to be repetitive, Australia is a very tough place to tour. A fast bowler has to be physically fit but the hard work has to be put in before the tour starts. It cannot be made up between Test matches, especially on a tour with an itinerary like this. Bad habits creep in as a bowler tires. They allow eager and ruthless batsmen to take advantage too, and that is what has happened to Harmison.
The pressure on England to pick Monty Panesar increases with every day but there is no guarantee that he will play. Giles had a good long bat in the nets yesterday while Panesar was taken for extra fielding practice. Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, is the type of character that enjoys flying in the face of public opinion but after two unrewarding Tests he must now realise Panesar is a likelier match-winner than Giles.
There are many who believe that Panesar would have changed the outcome of the first two Tests but that is rubbish. The left-arm spinner would have helped in Adelaide but he would have made no difference at all in Brisbane. He has not bowled as well as he can here but in his 10-Test career he has shown he gets good batsmen out, and Australia have seven of them.
The nature of the WACA pitch has changed since England's last visit, a Test that does not bring back happy memories. England were thumped in three days and finished the match with two of the team unfit to bat. There is talk that the pitch will spin but the West Indies, with their fast bowlers, are the only side to win here in the past 21 years. Australia have won seven of their last nine games here, the other two were drawn.
Anderson bowled well against WA. He swung the ball and showed excellent control. But he did the same against South Australia before the first Test only to lack discipline and edge when it counted. The step up in class is currently exposing his shortcomings.
It is hard not to have sympathy for Anderson. He played a couple of games for Lancashire at the end of the summer and bowled 26 overs in the Champions Trophy but he is still grooving a remodelled action and is desperately short of bowling. The predicament he finds himself in is not of his doing. Mahmood is taller and quicker, assets that could help him shake up the Aussie batting line-up. There is a risk in selecting him because he can be erratic but it is felt he would take more wickets than Anderson, whose two victims so far in the series have cost him 151.5 runs each.
The toss here is not quite as important as Adelaide but England could do with winning it and batting. There may be assistance in the pitch for the first hour or so but England need to post a decent score to put Australia under pressure. Whether they are batting or bowling, Flintoff's side need to start well.
So far they have been totally outplayed in three crucial sessions of play the first morning of the series, England's first bat in Brisbane and the final day in Adelaide and they will continue to struggle unless they learn to cope with these pressure situations. England have attempted to draw a line under the second Test but a poor first session could see the gremlins reappear.
"We still have to be confident when we are in these situations," said Flintoff. "We have to have bags of belief in what we are doing. We have shown we can compete and go toe to toe with Australia but we have to identify the big moments and be ruthless.
"We were all shocked by what happened in Adelaide but we have to pick ourselves up. The team has strong characters and they are keen to prove something on Thursday. Our bowlers are learning to bowl here. It is not like it is in England where you have the Dukes cricket ball that swings for a long time and nips around a lot. A Kookaburra goes soft pretty quickly and loses its seam. For the seamers it is a question of consistency and applying pressure to the batsmen. Our aim is to stop them scoring."
Australia are keen to impress too. Warne will be trying to take his 700th Test wicket in the next week he needs six and Australia appear to be looking for more than the Ashes in the next three Tests. They want to prove Glenn McGrath right and beat England 5-0.
Fraser suffers as Lillee steals the spotlight
The Independent's Angus Fraser found the going tough as Dennis Lillee stole the show in last night's Legends Twenty20 match between former players from Australia and England at the WACA.
Roared on by a crowd of nearly 20,000, Lillee dismissed Mike Gatting with the second ball of his only over. The legendary fast bowler induced Gatting in to edging a full delivery through to wicket-keeper, Ian Healy. Unfortunately, the 57-year-old's knees failed to allow him to bowl any more overs.
However, Lillee's wicket could not prevent the England team coasting to a seven-wicket victory as they successfully chased down Australia's total of 171. Graham Thorpe and Robin Smith rolled back the years by scoring half-centuries for England against an attack containing Merv Hughes, Terry Alderman, Rodney Hogg and Bruce Reid.
John Emburey took three wickets for the visitors after Ryan Campbell - who played two one-dayers for Australia - had struck a whirlwind 60. Fraser took the brunt of his strokeplay, being struck for four sixes in an expensive four-over spell.
The match was part of a fortnight of cricket-related festivities in Perth.
Angus Fraser selects his XIs
R T Ponting (capt)
J L Langer
M L Hayden
M E K Hussey
M J Clarke
A C Gilchrist (wkt)
S K Warne
S R Clark
G D McGrath
A Flintoff (capt)
A J Strauss
A N Cook
I R Bell
P D Collingwood
K P Pietersen
G O Jones (wkt)
S J Mahmood
M J Hoggard
S J Harmison
M S Panesar
England's Tour: Results and fixtures
Fri 10 Nov v Prime Minister's XI (Canberra), Lost by 166 runs
Sun 12-Tue 14 v New South Wales (Sydney), Match drawn
Fri 17-Sun 19 v South Australia (Adelaide), Match drawn
Thu 23-Mon 27 First Test v Australia (Brisbane), Lost by 277 runs
Fri 1-Tue 5 Dec, Second Test Test v Australia (Adelaide), Lost by 6 wickets
Fri 8 v Cricket Australia Chairman's XI (Perth), Lost by 7 wickets
Sat 9-Sun 10 v W Australia (Perth) Match drawn
Thu 14-Mon 18 Third Test v Australia (Perth), Sky Sports 1; 2.30am start
Tue 26-Sat 30 Fourth Test v Aus (Melbourne)
Tue 2-Sat 6 Jan Fifth Test v Australia (Sydney)Reuse content