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.

News
peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
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

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam