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.