Aussies lack swagger but it's hard in Wagga Wagga

No 'whitewash' claims this time but it's notoriously difficult to win Down Under

England depart this week on their quest to retain the Ashes. Rarely have they been accompanied by such abundant hope since those ladies of Melbourne presented Ivo Bligh, the England captain, with an urn containing a burnt bail on Christmas Eve, 1882.

That jocular little ceremony performed at Rupertswood country house by its chatelaine, Lady Janet Clarke, led directly to the birth of the greatest of all sporting contests. The urn in which those ashes were contained was soon to be replaced by the terracotta object which survives to this day. Its contents are almost certainly not original. How many times it fell off Bligh's mantelpiece back in Kent to disgorge its contents into the grate below, only to be replaced by something less than the remnants of a bail, is unknown. Plenty, it is fair to presume.

Bligh became Lord Darnley and when he died in 1927, his widow Florence, who had been a guest at Rupertswood when the original presentation took place, donated to MCC the urn, its contents and the velvet bag in which both were wrapped and which had been sent to Bligh separately on that tour. At Lord's they have stayed, apart from the odd excursion, ever since.

But that is not the point. What Lady Clarke did 128 years ago has imbued any Test series between England and Australia with a mythic quality. The Ashes became no more nor less than the Holy Grail.

All England cricketers, all Australian cricketers want to play for them and they want to win them. If they can do so in the other's country so much the better, the prize is greater still. England have not won in Australia since 1986-87 and on all five subsequent expeditions the aspirations with which they travelled proved to have less substance than a LibDem manifesto.

The sense that the tourists can win – they can win, of course, at the start of every tour but lately it has not been much more than the statement of a mathematical truism – is palpable. England have assembled a team who are not only improving but have become used to winning. Australia remain in transition, yet to come to terms with being bereft of the great players who kept them dominant for so long. If not now, the feeling is it may be never.

Australia's vulnerability is plain, both in their position at No 5 in the world Test rankings, behind England at four, and in the predictions. The phoney war conducted by their denizens has come to consist in the last two decades of a dismissive statement of superiority, with the support of hard fact, notwithstanding the two narrow defeats in England in 2005 and 2009. Not this time.

Nobody is quite sure. Dennis Lillee, one of the greatest of all their fast bowlers, was the latest to put in his twopenn'orth and naturally he tipped Australia. "In the end," he said in a radio interview on Friday, "it's got to be your attack. You've got to bowl sides out twice, and if I look at both attacks I think Australia – even without Warne and McGrath – have a better attack than England.

"Their spinning attack – they may use spin twins – may be better than ours because Nathan Hauritz is still evolving, but overall our attack is better and that's where games are won. It's going to be much closer than the other ones but we should probably win it 2-1 or 3-2."

But note the caution. No typical Aussie swagger forecasting a whitewash, not a hint of braggadocio (not that there has been much need of that in recent years). While Lillee knows a thing or two about fast bowling, it is easy to mount a quarrel with him about his judgement. Australia's attack looked insipid in India recently and if that fate befalls many seamers on the sub-continent, it is clear that they are not incisive or cute enough to hold a candle to such forebears as Lillee or Glenn McGrath. England will be grateful for their own attack thanks very much, Dennis. And they will not play two spinners.

But journeying with hope is one thing and delivering on it quite another. Regardless of their merit at any given time, no matter whether their bowling attack is better, or their batsmen more prolific, Australia are damnably hard to beat at home.

In the last 100 years, from the tour of 1911-12, England have visited Australia 22 times with the Ashes at stake. They have won seven times, lost 13 and drawn twice when they needed to win to reclaim the urn. Four victories have been to retain and four defeats came when they had held the Ashes. In short, Australia usually win at home.

That they have fallen backwards is not in doubt but in Australia they remain formidable. Of their most recent 100 home Tests, starting with West Indies' triumph in 1993 at Perth which secured a nip-and-tuck series 2-1, Australia have lost only 12. Of the 32 series of which those matches have been part, they have lost only one, to South Africa two winters ago, with another three drawn.

That is the measure of England's task as Andrew Strauss, their captain, will be made aware as soon as he goes through customs next Saturday lunchtime.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Life and Style
life
News
Melissa and Joan Rivers together at an NBC event in May 2014
peopleDaughter Melissa thanks fans for 'outpouring of support'
Life and Style
tech
Life and Style
One in six drivers cannot identify a single one of the main components found under the bonnet of an average car
motoringOne in six drivers can't carry out basic under-bonnet checks
News
i100
Voices
Pupils educated at schools like Eton (pictured) are far more likely to succeed in politics and the judiciary, the report found
voices
News
peopleWrestling veteran drifting in and out of consciousness
Arts and Entertainment
Shady character: Jon Hamm as sports agent JB Bernstein in Million Dollar Arm
filmReview: Jon Hamm finally finds the right role on the big screen in Million Dollar Arm
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone