If there's any lesson to be learnt from England's latest surrender of the Ashes, it is that Australia are never more ruthless than when the urn has started the series in the hands of their opponents. ESPNcricinfo charts the 14 series since the Second World War in which the Ashes have changed hands, and finds a recurring theme.

"Is it the Ashes... yes, England have won the Ashes!" Brian Johnston's immortal commentary heralded the return of the urn to England for the first time in 19 years. And true to the tendencies that England would show in the coming decades, the homecoming was agonising and stretched to the bitter end of the series. England, who lost the toss in all five Tests, might have gone 1-0 down at Lord's had it not been for a legendary rearguard from Trevor Bailey and Willie Watson. However, Len Hutton's team held their nerve, with Denis Compton's winning boundary off Arthur Morris at The Oval triggering a national celebration.

Four years on from a majestic defence of the Ashes Down Under, England travelled in expectation as much as hope with, on paper, one of the strongest touring parties they had ever assembled. But, in a towelling defeat that cashed in on a classic dose of English hubris, Richie Benaud's young and eager Aussie team made a mockery of Peter May's men, for whom the series was, in all too many cases, a tour too far. "Seven years of success on the cricket field had not brought team spirit so much as a belief that, when needed, everything would come right," wrote Bill Bowes in The Cricketer Spring Annual.

1970-71 - England win 2-0

A classic of attrition, endurance and a bloody-minded refusal to fold in the face of ever-mounting odds. In his later, ill-fated, reign as "supremo" of English cricket in the mid-1990s, Ray Illingworth's reputation for stubbornness took on less flattering connotations. But as England's captain on one of the most arduous Ashes tours of all time, he was the right (Yorkshire)man in the right place, and was fittingly chaired from the field after England's decisive victory in the seventh (yes, seventh) Test at Sydney. In a series that encompassed crowd trouble, scheduling gripes and run-ins with the umpires (famously, England didn't receive a single lbw all tour), England owed their edge to Geoff Boycott's obduracy at the top of the order and John Snow's pace with the ball.

"Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust. If Thommo don't get ya, Lillee must!" A epochal Ashes mauling, instigated by a pair of searingly fast bowlers, neither of whom had been remotely on England's radar in the build-up to the tour. Dennis Lillee's pedigree was well known and respected after his efforts in England in 1972, but he had spent the preceding year with his torso in plaster as he overcame a career-threatening back injury. As for Jeff Thomson, he appeared from nowhere, much like the scorching slingshots that would materialise from behind his back. England's resolve was broken at Brisbane in the very first Test - save that of the gutsy Tony Greig, who took to signalling his own boundaries in a bid to goad Lillee in particular during a brilliant if slightly unhinged hundred. Funnily enough, his riling had the desired effect. But not for his own team-mates.

An outlier in the annals of Ashes recaptures, as England won comfortably against an Australia side who contested the entire tour under a huge cloud. On May 9, in the build-up to the series, it emerged that 13 of Australia's 17-man squad had agreed terms to play for Kerry Packer's breakaway tournament, World Series Cricket. Greig also emerged as a key signatory - he was stripped of the England captaincy with Mike Brearley taking charge instead - but the team was scarcely ruffled in a series made memorable by Geoff Boycott's triumphant return from self-imposed exile, and the precocious debut of a certain Ian Terrance Botham.

Australia's turn to reclaim the Ashes with a less-than-comprehensive final scoreline - although, given the trauma that Botham had inflicted on their national psyche in England in 1981, the speed with which they set the record straight was admirable. They quickly took a 2-0 series lead thanks to victories at Brisbane and Adelaide, but England kept their hopes alive with a gripping three-run win at Melbourne, putting the jitters through Australia once again, after Thomson and Allan Border had added 70 runs for the tenth wicket. And, had John Dyson been given run out on the first day at Sydney, the door might have been ajar once again. As it was, his five-hour 79 set the parameters for a docile urn-seizing draw.

In the final analysis, this was as close to a cakewalk as England have ever produced - back-to-back innings wins at Edgbaston and The Oval wrapped up a 3-1 Ashes homecoming, with David Gower's 732 runs cementing his status as a national sporting treasure. It was, briefly, a bit more of a tussle than that, thanks almost entirely to the indomitable Border, who squared the series at Lord's with 196 and 41 not out as the rest of his batting crumbled around him. Border then added a further matchsaving hundred at Old Trafford but, with Australia at their lowest ebb of all time, swing was the thing that unpicked their last threads of resistance. Richard Ellison came in for the last two Tests and sauntered to the top of the averages with 17 wickets at 10.88.

"What do you think this is? A f****** tea party?" Whether the utterance was apocryphal or not, it really doesn't matter - Border's brutal refusal of Robin Smith's request for a glass of water encapsulates his team's furious determination in the summer of 1989. No more Mr Nice Guy was the message - a fat lot of good that had done him both in 1985 and in a chastening home defeat in 1986-87. All that mattered to Border was that he cast off his reputation as a loser, and he did so with the grandest gesture imaginable. England's 4-0 thrashing actually flattered them - they would have lost by an unprecedented 6-0 margin had it not been for rain at Edgbaston and The Oval. Gower, restored as captain on the strength of his achievement four years previously, was condemned to the most chastening summer of his life.

The greatest Ashes of all time? Australians might claim that that accolade belongs to the return series 18 months later. But this was without doubt the most fantastically competitive five-Test series in living memory, and epitomised the angst that English fans endure in Ashes victory as well as defeat. Their team fought back from another Australian drubbing at Lord's to dominate the next three Tests. But they managed to win just two of them by agonisingly tight margins, as a great Australia team, inspired by Shane Warne, simply refused to go quietly. It all came down a delirious, nation-halting week at The Oval, where Australia's final-day surge for a series-squaring win was thwarted in buccaneering style by that man, Kevin Pietersen, whose maiden Test century confirmed the arrival of a once-in-a-lifetime talent.

No series better showcases what the Ashes mean to Australia than their full-throated roar of redemption in their home summer of 2006-07. A team of all-time greats - Warne, Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist, to name but the very best - had endured the single biggest blow to their collective egos in surrendering the Ashes in England. But they made it their mission to wreak vengeance at the very first opportunity. Adelaide, inevitably, was the clincher - an impossible final-day victory that played on every lingering doubt that England's psyche had stored up over the preceding two decades. By the time the Aussies signed off at Sydney with their first Ashes whitewash since 1920-21, it had become a turkey shoot.

England entered the Ashes year of 2009 in utter turmoil, without a captain or a coach, following Pietersen's rancorous fall-out with Peter Moores, and with a humiliating 51-all-out defeat against West Indies to shatter any expectations against the Aussies. And when Ponting's men racked up a massive 674 for 6 declared in their only innings at Cardiff, a repeat of 1989 seemed on the cards. But then the worm turned. England's tail clung on for a miracle in that first Test, before Andrew Strauss's century and five wickets for the fading Flintoff set up a first Ashes win at Lord's for 75 years. But England's drubbing at Headingley set the sides up for another Oval showdown, where a debut century from Jonathan Trott and a six-wicket salvo from the tyro Stuart Broad left Australia with no place to turn.

Mix the misplaced confidence of 1958-59 with the shock and awe of 1974-75, and stir in the ruthless thirst for redemption of 2006-07, and you have an unbeatable recipe for the perfect Ashes crumble. This tour was a disaster beyond mitigation for English cricket, comprised of five on-field humiliations, a glut of torched reputations, and a legacy of rancour and mistrust beyond the boundary, as Mitchell Johnson's furious onslaughts rendered the preceding summer's 3-0 Ashes loss a curious footnote. His pace like fire left the whole of English cricket smouldering for a miserable 12 months of inquest and recrimination.

Surely the most puzzling and polarising Ashes contest of the lot. Was it close? Was it a thrashing? Who would have emerged triumphant had the series been played on the moon? The case for England's prosecution - 18.3 overs on an August morning in Nottingham, where Broad claimed the immortal figures of 8 for 15 and Australia surrendered the urn in little over an hour's play in the fourth Test. The case for Australia's defence - two stunningly one-sided wins on flat decks at Lord's and The Oval - by 405 runs and an innings and 46 runs respectively, with a certain Steven Smith reeling off a pair of huge hundreds against England's impotent attack.

In theory the two sides ought to have been closely matched. In practice, England were outgunned in every relevant department. In the course of Australia's series-sealing innings win at Perth, their trio of quicks reeled off 97 of the 100 fastest deliveries of the match, a damning indictment of England's popgun response. In Nathan Lyon, they possessed a spinner of guile and penetration who exposed Moeen Ali's relative lack of craft, while Smith, the captain, attained standards that evoked Don Bradman, no less, in recording a brace of masterful hundreds at Brisbane and Perth. With the qualified exception of James Anderson, none of England's senior players attained anything approaching their best - and one in particular, Alastair Cook, looked every bit as weary as his 150 Tests would imply.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo @miller_cricket