Heat rises as England seek three-peat
Pound for pound, it is arguably the keenest rivalry in sport. The men's version is immersed in greater hype and embarked, ten years ago this week, on the single most extraordinary sporting rollercoaster of them all. But the women's Ashes - which gets underway at Taunton on Tuesday - is the more reliable guarantee of sustained cut-and-thrust between two inseparably matched teams.
England come into the series seeking their third Ashes win in a row, having provided a lone source of succour in Australia two winters ago, by retaining the trophy in their rivals' backyard only weeks after their male counterparts had been pounded 5-0 in their own series.
However, they were made to struggle every step of the way, including during a gripping Test match at the WACA that ebbed and flowed throughout four strength-sapping days in the heat of Western Australia. England endured, by 61 runs on the final day, but Australia won two of the three ODIs to keep the contest burning all the way into the Twenty20 leg of the series.
Bookending England's home-and-away wins in 2013-14, however, were two notable moments in which Australia ruled the roost. At the World Cup in February 2013, the two sides contested another blood-and-thunder contest in Mumbai, where Australia's thrilling two-run victory in the Super Sixes effectively confirmed that England, the then-holders, would be passing their crown over to their arch-rivals.
And more recently, at Dhaka in April 2014, Australia again prevailed in the heat of a global tournament, outlasting England in the final of the competition as Meg Lanning, Australia's precocious captain, seized the spoils with 44 from 30 balls. That makes the Ashes the only jewel still missing from their triple crown, which is all the more incentive for England to cling on with all their might.
"It's that fight, that energy that they bring and we bring, and that buzz around the Ashes," Sarah Taylor, England's wicketkeeper and No. 3 batsman says. "That buzz is what creates that fight on the field.
"They are all mates of ours, we've grown up playing with and against them but it's that white-line fever, as soon as you step over the rope and it's against Australia, you're playing for pride, you're playing for your country and I think a lot of the girls feel it. A lot of people watching feed off that energy, purely because it's an Ashes series."
For the third Ashes running, the contest has been spiced up by the use of an innovative points system, pioneered by Clare Connor, the ECB's head of women's cricket, but adjusted a touch for this rubber. Six points were previously available for the one-off Test but that has now been reduced to four, and the Test itself is now sandwiched in the middle of the tour, at Canterbury in August, to prevent either side from getting off to a (Perth) flyer.
"If we'd had the same points as last time we still would have retained the Ashes," says Heather Knight, the England vice-captain whose career-best 157 at Wormsley in 2013 helped set up that summer's win. "The team that switches between the formats will win overall, but with the new system it feels like every game is a massive match.
"I thrive on the pressure, it brings out the best in me and the best in the girls as well. It's great to be involved in those games, because there's no better feeling than beating an Aussie."
This summer's contest begins amid a heightened sense of awareness of women's sport, following the exploits of England's Lionesses at the football World Cup in Canada last month. Their advance to the semi-finals - and an eventual third-place play-off victory over their own arch-enemies, Germany - was, to their cricketing counterparts, merely a continuation of a trend that they have themselves been living for the past decade.
"I made my debut seven years ago and it's unbelievable how much it has changed," Anya Shrubsole, the England fast bowler, says. "It's getting so much better and I can only see it continuing.
"A lot of the girls, me included, watched a lot of that World Cup and were really behind the girls. It was obviously disappointing not to win but it inspired us to keep this feel-good factor around women's sport going."
The ECB's commitment to women's cricket accelerated last year with the awarding of its first set of fully professional contracts, and this summer's Ashes will be the first in which all seven games - three ODIs, three T20s and the Canterbury Test - are broadcast live on Sky Sports.
"It's an exciting place to be in women's sport at the moment so we are looking to continue that momentum," Knight says. "It's a massive platform to show off our skills so hopefully the public will get behind us and we can play some cricket that people want to watch."
There will be few surprises in the coming weeks, given how familiar both sets of players are with one another. As if the international encounters were not sufficient, three of England's batsmen, Knight, Taylor and Charlotte Edwards, spent last winter in Australia playing in their domestic competition.
"Yeah, we're a bit sick of them to be honest," Knight says. "We saw a lot of them this winter but it works the other way around as well, they've seen a lot of us. But we are quite evenly matched and that hopefully bodes well for an exciting series. I think if we can keep their best players quiet that'll be key."
Chief among those threats will be Lanning, still only 23, but already well on the way towards being one of the greats of the women's game. She scored the first of her to-date five ODI hundreds as a teenager at Perth during England's 2010-11 tour, and scored 336 runs at 112.00 in their 4-0 thrashing of West Indies, the 2013 World Cup finalists, in their most recent outing in November.
And then there's Ellyse Perry, nominally a fast bowler but one whose all-round game has developed so dramatically that she is now considered a frontline batsman. Since scoring 45 in the final ODI of Australia's last visit to England, she has amassed 463 runs at 154.33 in eight subsequent 50-over games, and also made 71 and 31 in the Perth Test, almost a third of Australia's runs in that low-scoring contest.
And then there's the legspinner, Kristen Beams, a late-blooming prospect at the age of 30, but one who has yet to taste defeat in 12 international appearances. Her career so far has been about control as much as wicket-taking, but her opportunity to play a Test match and turn the screw in a sustained spell is one that England are already guarding against, especially given the legend of the art in Ashes folklore.
"I hope she doesn't turn up like Shane Warne," Taylor says. "She's just very consistent, and without giving too much away, we need to ruin that consistency and get on top of her as early as possible."
But England possess plenty of trumps of their own, not least their captain, Edwards, who seems to have been around since the dawn of time itself. At the age of 35 and in her 20th year of international cricket, she remains as motivated as ever, having set up her side's come-from-behind win in New Zealand in the spring with an unbeaten half-century in the series-turning fourth game.
"She's just disgustingly motivated," Taylor says. "I can't really describe it any other way. She just wears her heart on her sleeve, she loves this game inside and out, she knows so much about it and if she's not playing it she's watching it and learning it.
"Credit to her, she's been around a while and is a lot older than the rest of us, but that learning helps her to keep playing. She just loves the game so much and it rubs off on the rest of us."
Andrew Miller is a former editor of the Cricketer. @miller_cricket