For once, history recedes into the background, writes Richard Williams

It is a contest older than the modern Olympic Games, older by far than football's World Cup. The Ashes, created in 1882, may not enjoy the global reach of those other great international tournaments but to the participants, two nations with long sporting pedigrees, they represent a biennial journey, interrupted only by baser conflicts, through the peaks and troughs of every conceivable emotion.

Brisbane's Gabba stadium will be packed on Thursday for the opening day of this latest five-match instalment of the ancient rivalry between England and Australia. Only two nations with so much shared history could engender a rivalry so deep that it seems to touch and expose their essence, an extension by other means of their intimate but often abrasive relationship social, political, cultural.

It has been called the most eagerly anticipated cricket series of all time but the threads of 124 years of combat form an intricately worked background to this meeting between the sides led by Ricky Ponting and Andrew Flintoff. Behind the two captains and their players flit the ghosts of Spofforth, Grace, Trumper, O'Reilly, Larwood, Grimmett, Hobbs, Bradman, Hutton, Miller, Compton, Harvey, Tyson, Benaud, Cowdrey, Simpson, Dexter, the Chappells, Boycott, Marsh, Botham, Lillee, Gatting, the Waughs and countless others, woven into a tale that grows richer with each retelling. No player privileged to take the field in an Ashes series can be unaware of his place, however insignificant, among the immortals.

For once, however, history recedes into the background. This time there is a more immediate imperative driving the two sides. England's victory in the summer of 2005, achieved by the skin of their teeth, represented a long-desired rebirth for the mother country and an unexpected reversal for the former colony. Now the host nation is thirsty for revenge while the visitors yearn to prove that their first Ashes success in 18 years was not merely the consequence of propitious circumstances.

And so, once the Australian public have got over the shock of hearing the swimmer Ian Thorpe, their No.1 individual sporting hero of the past 10 years, announcing his retirement on Tuesday, they will turn their attention to six weeks of cricket that promise another epic narrative.

You might not think that the 2006-07 Ashes series would need much in the way of hype but the Aussies are doing their best to raise the temperature. The arrival of Michael Vaughan at Brisbane airport on Monday inspired claims of a secret England plan to spring him on the Australians on Thursday, an Achilles emerging from seclusion to answer his army's despairing call.

Capable

Meanwhile Warne, 37, and Glenn McGrath, 36, promise that a side packed with 30somethings will be more than fit enough to humble the Poms.

Last time around, even in defeat, Warne was the undisputed Man of the Series, while the two victories that gave England the Ashes were achieved in McGrath's absence. Whatever these two have left in the tank, it will be drained to the last drop.

Three years ago an England team came to Brisbane and knocked Wales out of the quarterfinals of the 2003 Rugby World Cup on their way to a victory over Australia in the final that was rather less unexpected than the Ashes defeat in England two years later. Now the hosts, heavy favourites in the betting, fancy their chances of restoring their pre-eminence, while England, deprived of Vaughan, Marcus Trescothick and Simon Jones, must overcome the odds.

Gripping

Whichever side wins the toss on Thursday, the first session cannot help but be as gripping as its equivalent at Lord's two years ago, the thunderous overture to a day that Ponting later called the most intense he had ever experienced and which ended with Australia 190 all out, England 92 for seven and five wickets apiece for McGrath and Steve Harmison. Never had so many conflicting signals been sent out in a single day's cricket. You would not want to bet against the same again on Thursday and a series to match.

- Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006

More In: SPORT | Today's Paper