England have arrived in Australia as favourites to retain the Ashes. But that is an old, old story. After the events of the past seven weeks there is neither complacency nor cockiness among the ranks of the women who have been entrusted to retain their version of a not-so-old urn.
The first leg of a marathon begins tomorrow in Perth, where the solitary Test match of the triple-format series takes place over four days. The teams will then play three one-day internationals and three Twenty20s before the contest is decided.
Six points are available for winning the Test – the sides are awarded two each in case of a draw – with two points for the winners of each of the ODIs and T20s. England won at home in the summer after being forced to bat for their lives to earn a draw in the Test match and then dominating the short games.
"In an ideal world we'd like to play a series of Test matches," said the England fast bowler Katherine Brunt in Perth. "But we know that what people like and what is the future of women's cricket is the limited-overs game and everyone has bought into this concept of the Ashes 100 per cent."
England will be led for the 176th time by Charlotte Edwards, who is also playing the 21st Test match of a career that began 18 years ago and shows no sign of flagging. Edwards, 34, who is not so quick over the ground these days, still has the unbridled backing of her team.
"She's been my captain virtually all my international career and frankly she's brilliant," said Brunt. "She knows exactly what she's doing, she knows her players. She cops flak for being slow but that's more than compensated for by her Test batting, her ability in the early overs of a limited-overs match and her captaincy.
"When she sets a field for Danielle Hazell's off-spin she doesn't just set the field for an off-spinner, she sets it for the way Danielle Hazell bowls off-spin. She absolutely loves cricket and that's why she's still around."
Brunt, the fastest female bowler in the world and proud of it, will share the new ball with the taller, leaner Anya Shrubsole. Together they are slightly reminiscent of Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick, who opened the bowling for England's men 10 years ago, not least because Brunt, like Gough, comes from Barnsley and Shrubsole hails from Somerset, where Caddick plied his trade.
"This won't be easy and I expect them to play really aggressive cricket on their pitches," said Brunt. "They came at us in the summer and I expect them to be more aggressive this time, but that might give us more options to take wickets."
The Test is likely to be a canny, cat-and-mouse affair. With six points at stake it has the potential to provide a significant step towards the Ashes. The loser would then probably have to win five of the limited-overs matches in order to prevail.
"I think we're more suited to the Test format because we've got batsmen who can knuckle down and play the long game, where the Aussies might give us openings," said Brunt. "But the strategy may have to change from session to session. You'll start off wanting to win but you don't want to lose this one."
England had to regroup in the summer when Australia, having made 331 for 6 declared, reduced them to 113 for 6 in reply. Heather Knight made 157 from 338 balls and Laura Marsh 55 from 304 balls in a partnership that was a masterpiece of self-denial lasting six hours. It allowed England to stay in touch and proceed to dominate.
The system was devised by the head of English women's cricket and the team's former captain, Clare Connor. She wanted to preserve the importance of Tests in the women's game while recognising that the future lay with other forms.
Cricket Australia is giving almost as much weight to the series as it did to the men's Ashes. England have led the way in promoting the game for women and their reward is at hand with genuinely talented girls now opting to choose cricket ahead of other sports.
That is reflected in England's team, a mix of experience and novices. Edwards is the oldest but there are six 22-year-olds in the touring party. England will probably put their faith in their old hands for the Test but there could be a debut for Natalie Sciver, who burst on to the scene last summer.
Australia are again led by Jodie Fields, who had an ultimately disappointing Ashes in England, and have recalled medium-pacer Rene Farrell. It may be form, mischief or the hope that history can repeat itself. Farrell has not played an international match since she turned the 2011 Ashes on their head by taking only the third hat-trick in a women's Test.
With England tootling along at 92 for 3 Farrell took four swift wickets including the hat-trick –the first victim of which was Edwards –in a burst that reduced the tourists to 95 for 7. Australia won the match by seven wickets and with it the Ashes.
After the Test match at the Waca, the women's caravan moves to Melbourne for two one-dayers and then to Hobart for the third. The three T20s will be curtain-raisers for the men's matches and if the Ashes are still to play for, they could be humdingers.
Women's Ashes: How the tournament works
Thursday-Monday Test match (Perth)
19 January 1st One-Day International (Melbourne)
23 January 2nd ODI (Melbourne)
26 January 3rd ODI (Hobart)
29 January 1st Twenty20 (Hobart)
31 January 2nd T20 (Melbourne)
2 February 3rd T20 (Sydney)
Unlike with the men, the women's Ashes tournament is decided by a points system over the course of matches in all three formats.
The winners of the Test match, which starts tomorrow, will score six points (two points each if the match is drawn) while each ODI and Twenty20 win scores two points. This allows a maximum of 18 points, and the side which accumulates the most points overall will win the Ashes.
England won the last series – the first to be decided on a points system – last summer.