James Lawton: England must hold nerve as they face ultimate test

It cannot be said that the cricketers of England and Australia are overburdened by expectation when a new Ashes series starts, quaintly, in Cardiff this morning. From the English perspective, at least, what began to happen at Lord's four years ago, when Glenn McGrath bowled like a god and his scattered opponents resolved, successfully, to fight back, is probably beyond reach.

However, there is a warming certainty as Andrew Strauss, having waded some way through the morass of the aborted captaincies of Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen, seeks to emulate Michael Vaughan in what he does to a still vengeful Australian skipper Ricky Ponting.

This is carried by the fact that however reduced the Aussies are by the disappearance of such titans as McGrath, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer – and the temporary inconvenience of Brett Lee – they still represent the ultimate challenge in the only form of cricket capable of standing a test of time as it runs longer and goes deeper than the bowling of a mere 20 overs.

They proved this in their last mission to South Africa, most people's idea of the new force in Test cricket.

What the Aussies did, to quote one of Ponting's livelier phrases, was to give it a "red-hot shake." The South Africans never truly recovered from the scorching.

Maybe 2005 should be wrapped in mothballs and brought out only when the heat of current Ashes action has passed, such is the standard it set for those who followed.

Yet it is also true that no-one could have imagined the dramas that came after McGrath's clinical masterpiece at Lord's and, who knows, the ferocity of Ponting's resolve to paint an entirely different picture of an English summer may well create its own extraordinary level of competition.

Certainly there must be much relief in the more realistic corners of the nation that a headline suggesting that Pietersen believes the Australian squad is "for the taking" turned out to be not quite right.

What he said, we should thank God, was, "we'll come out fighting because we're not scared."

To say these two statements are not the same thing is a bit like pointing out certain discrepancies between Mein Kampf and The Bible.

Only on the rarest occasions have the men in the baggy green caps been for the taking and around about the last time it happened the captain Kim Hughes broke down and wept and the general population went into shock that probably still lingers in their subconscious.

Hughes was a fine cricketer martyred, some still feel, by Aussie incomprehension that some opponents had come to see them as a soft touch.

What can be said with absolute conviction is that Ponting is not likely to shed the smallest tear in the face of adversity. If the loss of Lee is a further erosion of the strength Ponting brought here four years ago, he has already firmly placed it in the category of passing and not insurmountable difficulty.

The captain's drive is the least of surprises. When England arrived in Australia in 2006 his intensity was so great that the glow in his eyes would have lit up the murkiest billabong. There are times when Ponting may not be the most engaging of men, he can be as sharply aggressive as the edge of a razor and his tolerance of that which he considers foolish or irrelevant lasts just as long as it takes him to flash out his contempt.

In an absorbing conversation with former England captain Nasser Hussain – himself not always celebrated for his patience in the face of professional ignorance – this week, though, Ponting did show us some of the essence of a superbly committed competitor. He was dismissive of the jibes he has received from the former "Terror Tomkins", aka Jeff Thomson, and, if you read just a little between the lines, offered us the prospect of a hard battle which, if it doesn't hit the heights of 2005, will remind us of how a Test series should be fought.

Ponting said: "I'm confident that we're going to play a level of cricket that's going to be good enough to win. I think we proved to a lot of people that we could play some very good cricket in South Africa. The way we played those first two games over there was as good as any team's played for Australia for three or four years.

"I honestly think it's going to be a really good, tight Test series. Whoever gets the best of the critical moments is going to win."

It is a low-key statement that still manages to brim with substance. This is Ponting's way. He regrets his larrikin ways, which once led to his suspension from the team, but he asserts that it was an experience that helped to shape him as a serious minded cricketer – and a serious man.

Strauss, too, has shown a fighting instinct, not least in 2005 with centuries at Old Trafford and The Oval while fighting off the Australian attempt to save the Ashes, and in his nerve in dealing with the disarray and scorn which accompanied the end of Pietersen's brief captaincy.

No, we may not have 2005 but one suspicion is that with the return to real cricket we will also have a genuine contest.

Another is that the Australians have retained enough of their pedigree to hold on to the Ashes they recovered in the fire of Ponting's leadership.

The margin? Probably no more than one Test, which is three or four less than was quite freely predicted on behalf of the Australians four years ago. But then we had something that was touched by fantasy. This time it's going to be attrition, time-honoured and, there is some reason to hope, far from inglorious.

Opening spell: How the early overs have determined an Ashes series

Ashes 2006/07 Steve Harmison infamously demonstrated how not to open an Ashes campaign in the first Test at The Gabba, the opening ball of the match nearly adding a knee injury to Andrew Flintoff's list of ailments – and he was at second slip. Australia made 602 in the first innings, the tone was set and they won the series 5-0.

Ashes 2005 Harmison started aggressively at Lord's, striking Justin Langer flush on the elbow from only the second delivery of the match. "These guys mean business," Langer said. Harmison also cut Ricky Ponting's face with a bouncer shortly afterwards. Although England lost the first Test, they won the thrilling series 2-1.

Ashes 2002/03 Even before the first ball England were up against it. Captain Nasser Hussain won the toss at The Gabba but opted to bowl, which backfired badly. Australia took advantage of several fielding errors and Simon Jones' knee injury to make 364 for 2 at close of the first day. Australia won the Test and the series 4-1.

Ashes 2001 Glenn McGrath got the series under way with a tight opening over that went for only two runs at Edgbaston. Jason Gillespie then took the wicket of Marcus Trescothick from the eighth ball of the match. Australian went on to win by an innings and 118 runs and the series 4-1.

Ashes 1994/95 Philip DeFreitas's tame opening delivery in Brisbane was smashed away for four by Aussie opener Michael Slater. It set an ominous precedent for England in an Aussie-dominated Test. The hosts advanced to 87 for 0 at lunch and won the Test by 184 runs and the series 3-1.

James Orr and Ben Henderson

First Test details

Pitch report Despite the anxiety it seems as though the Cardiff track will offer something for everyone, if slowly, and last the full five days.

Weather watch Light showers will interrupt the day. Max temp: 19c. The five-day forecast is mixed sunshine and showers.

TV times Live: Sky Sports 1, HD1 10.0-19.0. Highlights: SS1: 20.0-22.0, Ch5: 19.15-20.0

Bet of the day England to win the first Test: 2/1; Australia to win the first Test: 15/8

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