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The 2005 Ashes series, one of the most exciting ever, was played out between an Australian team long recognised as the best in the world and a rapidly progressing England outfit that had triumphed in its past five Test series. The question then was, had England improved so much that they could overtake the mighty Australians? Now, it’s have Australia declined so far that they’ll plummet past their hosts?

The Australian party contains but three of those who played in that 2005 series: Ricky Ponting, captain again as he was then, fast bowler Brett Lee, who provided one of the iconic moments of that series when comforted in defeat by Andrew Flintoff, and Simon Katich, then in the middle order, now at its head. A domination once based on the genius of Shane Warne’s leg spin, the unrelenting probing of Glenn McGrath’s fast-medium bowling, the aggressive partnership of openers Hayden and Langer, and the destructive hitting down the order of Gilchrist is now built on much shallower foundations.

In spin, the touring party looks especially weak. The one specialist tweaker in the party, 27-year-old off-spinner Nathan Hauritz, has, in 45 first-class matches, taken only 88 wickets at almost 47 runs apiece. Such figures would, ordinarily, make it unlikely he’d retain a place in his state side. Instead, such is the poverty of Australian spin options, that it has brought him four Test caps. On spinning surfaces, England should have a distinct advantage. Graeme Swann will be keen to show that his success against the West Indies’ left-handers last winter can be replicated against an Australian batting order likely to include three southpaws in the top five.

However, other Aussie newcomers look more threatening. Left-arm quickie Mitchell Johnson, a tail-ender good enough already to have made a Test century and average 35 from his 21 Tests, is a potential handful with the ball and irritant with the bat. How he performs, and how well supported he is by Peter Siddle, a swift right-arm swing bowler, could decide the series.

Don’t underestimate this Aussie side. In personnel, it may be different from the one that, smarting from that 2005 reverse, thumped England 5–0 just over a year later at home, but it’s much the same team as went to South Africa last winter. That touring party had also been decried as not up to the standard of its immediate predecessors. Australia had just lost at home to South Africa, and the return series was expected to underline Australia’s decline and install South Africa in popular perception as the best Test team. Australia won the three-Test series, winning the first two matches by 162 and 175 runs respectively.

England themselves have problems. Flintoff, whose all-round abilities give the team a balance they can’t find otherwise, is but a part-time player these days. Their best batsman, Kevin Pietersen, also has injury woes, and were the captain Andrew Strauss to be incapacitated, the side would be plunged into a potential leadership crisis.

There are many reasons for supporters of both sides to be pessimistic about their team’s chances, but there’s every reason to be optimistic about a close-fought series. After all, the pulsating 2005 Ashes may have been played out between two sides near the peak of their powers, but the 1981 Ashes, equally dramatic, was between teams of far more modest abilities. To expect another series as exciting as those two would be greedy. But we can dream, can’t we?

The Ashes: a potted history

Dating back to March 1877, the England v Australia Test series is the oldest continuous international cricket fixture of all. The first, in Melbourne, was won by Australia, and the team enters this latest series at an advantage of 31 wins to England’s 28, with five series drawn.

The Ashes Urn

At the Oval in 1882, England suffered their first home defeat. In response, The Sporting Times printed the obituary notice: ‘In affectionate remembrance of English Cricket.’ During the tour the following winter, a group of Australian ladies presented the then English captain, the Hon Ivo Bliga, with a small urn containing the ashes of a cricket bail. Thus the Ashes were born, and the urn is still played for today.

The Ashes begins on July 8; for more information, visit http://cricket.npower.com

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