Strauss calls on England to seize Ashes moment

Captain insists his team can put emotions aside as they step into the unknown

At 11am today the talking will stop. The Ashes, the most historic of all international sporting contests, will finally begin in the improbable confines of a ground almost bereft of cricketing tradition.

For both England and Australia it is a step largely into the unknown. They are familiar neither with each other nor with the revamped arena in which they will play. For Andrew Strauss, the captain of England, who has been entrusted with regaining the great prize for the seventh time on home shores, it is a day he never presumed would come.

Barely more than a year ago he was fighting to save his international career, six months ago he was a senior player who had twice been overlooked for the permanent leadership of the team. And now he stands on the threshold of a place in the pantheon of English sports captains.

To achieve it he has to gain the upper hand against his counterpart, Ricky Ponting, statistically the third most successful Test captain of all time of those who have led in 10 matches and a man well versed in what it takes to win (and lose) tough Test matches.

"It's a huge moment," Strauss said yesterday as he looked forward for one last time to this series. "I would never have dreamt of doing it a few years ago. I am hugely excited about it. It's a massive honour and certainly if we're successful it will live with me for ever. But now is not the time to get emotional about things. Now is the time to go out and do our jobs."

It was less a rallying cry than a simple, unemotional declaration that England have to discard the baggage that surrounds such events and remain rigid in their discipline and approach.

The series of five matches will take only 48 days, which will give little time either for anticipation or reflection, an oddness enhanced by the fact that the build-up to it began on 12 September 2005 when England last regained the Ashes and sent a nation into paroxysms of elation.

Since then, the four-and-a-half-inch terracotta urn, which resides permanently in the museum at Lord's cricket ground and is at the centre of all this fuss, has been transferred once more in to Australian hands.

In 2006-07, Australia won 5-0 on home soil, only the second whitewash in the history of the contest. But that, much to Australian consternation and amusement, has been airbrushed from English history books. "We're aware of that," said Ponting yesterday in the sort of tone that suggested he would not mind another whitewash that would not be so easily overlooked. He certainly would not be drawn on whether the series would be as close as almost every serious pundit predicts and clearly has other ideas in mind.

Despite the bizarre decision to hold the match at Sophia Gardens, which has never before staged a Test match, there is no question that the city and the principality appear to have taken the match to their hearts.

The ground has been transformed but remains intimate enough to have a fervent atmosphere. There is undoubtedly a febrile mood.

The series is bound to live in the shadow of its immediate predecessor in England in 2005. It is impossible to see how cricket of quite such high quality leading to such a gripping climax could be repeated so soon.

But the sides look remarkably close – Australia are regrouping, England are beginning to show the green shoots of recovery – and as last Sunday's men's singles finals at Wimbledon demonstrated, following hard on the heels of the 2008 final, it is possible to have two epic contests in a row.

The fascinating probability last night was that both sides would approach the matter with sides for differing purposes. England, as they have aspired to do all along, seemed as though they would pick two spinners and Australia, without Shane Warne for the first time in eight Ashes series, seemed about to err on the side of fielding an attack with four seamers. By Sunday night, maybe earlier, somebody will have been proved wrong.

Strauss said his team were ready and had not been lulled into any false sense of security by an Australian team shorn of iconic players of whom Warne was but one, and dramatically deprived of the services of their fastest bowler Brett Lee two days ago.

"You expect any Australian team to be strong and that's certainly the way we're approaching it," he said. "They've got match-winners with both bat and ball and to think in any way that you're in for an easy ride against an Australian side is the wrong way to go about it. It's going to be tough cricket and we need to be up for it, we need to be ready for it and we need to be prepared to slug it out at times."

England sound as if they believe they can win back the Ashes. And so they can.

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