Ivo Bligh has a lot to answer for. In the winter of 1882-83, England's aristocratic captain announced that he was heading to Australia "to recover those Ashes". In the process, he gave birth to the most powerful shorthand in the history of sport.
Today, the concept has spread to the point where we have so-called "Ashes" battles in everything from netball to squash. Each contest gains a little extra frisson by association with Bligh's ancient quip (which itself stemmed from the satirical newspaper obituary that greeted England's first Test defeat at home). But there is still nothing like the original. And neither has there ever been a year like the one that stands ahead of us.
A quirk of scheduling means that, over the next 12 months, Alastair Cook's England and Michael Clarke's Australia will contest home-and-away Test series adding up to 10 matches on the cricket field. Meanwhile, the British and Irish Lions will undertake a three-Test tour of Australia in June and July, concluding just four days before the cricketers go to Trent Bridge for their own curtain-raiser.
The upshot is that, by the end of this equivalent week in 2014, Australia could have rebuilt its reputation as one of the world's sporting superpowers. Alternatively - and at this stage more probably, according to the bookmakers - it could be instigating reviews and restructurings after three series defeats.
How much are these alternatives preoccupying the Aussie sports fans of the moment? Perhaps not as much as you imagine. Australians traditionally react to sporting failure by turning their attention elsewhere. In the words of Will Swanton, a Sydney-based author and journalist: "We are a nation of bandwagon-jumpers. If things go well, we get excited. If not, we climb off the bandwagon and go looking for something else."
When Australia's cricketers struggle on an Ashes tour to England, for example, there is so much domestic clatter to distract the sports-lover's mind. The two big events of the winter Down Under are the AFL - that's Aussie Rules football to you and me - and rugby league. They both run virtually without reference to the outside world, like baseball and gridiron in the US. So why get over-fussed about a batting collapse on a tiny island on the other side of the world?
A more serious problem arrives with the summer, when cricket is the only show in town. Tennis, with the Australian Open in January, used to provide a handy diversion, but this is not so easy now, for the best Australian male, Marinko Matosevic (who was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina), stands at No?49 in the ATP rankings, and Sam Stosur seems to lose every match she plays on home soil.
As we saw on Andrew Strauss's triumphant tour in 2010-11, the best way to deliver a black eye to the Australian sporting psyche is to win a Test series on their own soil. Most Aussies are not embarrassed by their gradual slide down the Olympic medal table, and they shrug off Cadel Evans's eclipse by Bradley Wiggins. But cricket remains the one sport that crosses state boundaries and is a symbolic standard-bearer.
In England, it used to be said that the manager of the national football team had the second most important job in the country. In Australia, the same phrase is applied to the cricket captain. Despite the early misgivings of the fans, who booed him in his first outing as Ricky Ponting's successor, Clarke has proved to be more than worthy of the role.
But can he continue to carry the team's run burden on his back, especially after Mike Hussey's surprise retirement this week? Australian insiders are still waiting on news of who will inherit Hussey's role as singer of the revered team song, Under the Southern Cross I Stand.
"We were concerned before Hussey walked and now we are really concerned," says the former Australia fast bowler Geoff Lawson. "Clarke and Hussey have been holding a shaky batting order together for the last 12 months."
Meanwhile the selectors are trying to introduce this crazy rotation system to the fast bowlers. Mitchell Starc takes a five-for against Sri Lanka at Hobart and then he is rested for Melbourne, even though any bowler knows that if you stop bowling, that just makes you more likely to get injured.
The selectors have started quoting sports science, and that is not a good sign, especially as most of the research is based on AFL and so is not relevant to cricket.
So what of the Lions tour? In the view of Alex Brown, head of sport at Sydney's (unrelated) Daily Telegraph, the Wallabies are under even more pressure than the cricketers. More than fighting for national pride, the rugby boys need a win - and a stylish one at that - to help secure the future of their sport. In Australia, rugby union is seen as a "posh" game that takes most of its players from a few private schools in Sydney and Brisbane. Worryingly, that catchment seems to be narrowing.
"Whether the Wallabies have been winning or losing, it's got to the point where people are just a bit apathetic," Brown said.
"Rugby union needs a big year if its not going to become a niche product, especially with soccer expanding its audience all the time."
If Cricket Australia's management has been questionable of late, the same could be said of the Australian Rugby Union. In 2008, it headhunted Robbie Deans from New Zealand to coach the side, only to find that he eschewed the time-honoured strengths of Australian rugby - fluidity and enterprise - in favour of a stolid, forward-dominated game.
Then, last year, it became involved in a long contract dispute with fly-half Quade Cooper. The fact that the ARU eventually backed down probably owes as much to the fact that Cooper is a recognisable celebrity, someone who generates publicity, as his qualities as a player.
Most observers would probably make the Lions slight favourites, even though neither side looks to have a vintage crop. But Stephen Larkham, the former Wallaby fly-half, is backing the Aussies to repeat their 2-1 comeback victory over the Lions, in the 2001 series that hinged on Richard Hill's concussion in the second Test.
"I'd expect us to lose the first Test," said Larkham, who played throughout that series. "We will be coming out of Super 15 rugby all battered and bruised, and trying to acclimatise immediately to the greater pace and intensity of the international game. But then the boys will be inspired by the crowd and come back to win 2-1. It's very different playing Australia at home."
For England, and for the rest of the home nations, this year's contests are all about proving themselves worthy. But within Australia, a country where dozens of sports fight over a population of just 22 million, the Ashes and the Lions tour also represent business opportunities.
What a chance to grab the headlines and excite the public, to be heard over the background chatter of AFL and rugby league. The ARU, in particular, cannot afford to lose more fans from the bandwagon.