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Excitement mounts on eve of Ashes opener

Written by: Staff

BRISBANE, Nov 22 (Reuters) Cricket's greatest rivals will renew hostilities tomorrow when Australia and England lock horns at the Gabba in the opening test of the most eagerly-anticipated Ashes series in generations.

Interest in the Ashes was beginning to decline when Australia racked up seven straight series wins between 1989 and 2003 but England's epic 2-1 victory at home last year instantly revitalised the rivalry.

Thousands of English fans have arrived in Brisbane for the series opener while tickets for each of the five tests sold out within hours of being released.

Australia will start as short-priced favourites to regain the Ashes on account of their imposing record on home soil and their outstanding form over the past 12 months.

The side have not lost a series at home to anyone in 14 years and have won 11 and drawn one of the 12 tests they have played since their loss last year.

''We're happy with the way we're going, there's a good mood in the team, but it all starts again tomorrow,'' Australia captain Ricky Ponting told a news conference today.

''It doesn't matter who the bookmakers think will win, the only thing that matters is what happens on the field and we're expecting a tough series.'' While Australia quickly rebounded from the disappointment of losing last year to re-establish themselves as the world's best team, England have struggled to reach those dizzy heights again.

Crippled by injuries, including the loss of their Ashes-winning captain Michael Vaughan and key fast bowler Simon Jones, England have won just five of their last 13 tests and have had a troubled start to their Australian tour.

They were beaten in their first game then lost experienced opener Marcus Trescothick a week before the test when he walked out on the team and flew home because of depression.

Strike bowler Steve Harmison threw a scare into the camp when he missed the last practice session with a side strain then in-form batsman Ian Bell injured his wrist in the nets at Brisbane.

Harmison and Bell are both still expected to play but the troubles have left captain Andrew Flintoff under no illusions about the difficulties facing his side.

''This could be the biggest test series ever... 2005 was a huge achievement for us but the opportunity to defend them in Australia is going to be even bigger,'' Flintoff said.

''We want to back it up with a good performance... the one thing we're desperate to do is to back up that performance from 2005 with a good one out here.'' GAINING EXPERIENCE Despite the odds being stacked against his team, all-rounder Flintoff said he was still confident England would retain the Ashes.

While previous England teams have crumbled in Australia, Flintoff said his young team were not scarred by past defeats and were better now than when they beat the Aussies last time.

''We played well in 2005 but I dont think we've peaked,'' he said.

''Some of the lads who played in that last test series hadn't played a lot of test cricket but have played more now.

''With the side being as young as it is I'd say it'd be dangerous to say it's peaked, it's a side that's gaining more experience and getting better.'' Australia suffered a setback this week when all-rounder Shane Watson was ruled out with a hamstring injury and replaced by middle-order batsman Michael Clarke.

Watson's loss leaves the Australians likely to attack England with just four specialist bowlers -- leg-spinner Shane Warne, pacemen Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee and either Stuart Clark or Mitchell Johnson.

With Warne and McGrath both in their late 30s and temperatures of 32 degrees Celsius forecast for the match, concerns have been raised about the age of Australia's bowlers but Ponting said they were jumping out of their skins to play.

''The excitement is starting to overflow on everybody,'' he said.

''The guys will be nice and fresh and raring to go.'' REUTERS DH BS1447

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