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May 25, 2011
The last time England's Test cricketers were all gathered together on the same field of play was at Sydney four-and-a-half months ago, when the squad parked itself on the grass, close to the spot where Chris Tremlett had earlier dismissed Australia's No. 11 Michael Beer, and celebrated the retention of the Ashes with stubbies, cigars, and reminiscences of a job well done.
On Thursday in Cardiff the team picks up where it left off. Or at least, that is the intention. Stuart Law, Sri Lanka's interim coach, has described Andrew Strauss's Test team as the "toughest deal on the planet", and to judge from the way they obliterated Australia he may have a point. Nevertheless, that was then and this is now. The onus for England is to replicate that Ashes intensity, while at the same time drawing a line under that very achievement, and turning their eyes to the future. It's the sort of challenge that they've struggled to surmount in the past.
"It is the only way we can look at it, we have got to look forward," said Strauss. "We have got to learn lessons from what we did well in Australia and put those into practice again but our goals have shifted completely now. We achieved quite an important goal for us as a side to win out there in Australia but our goals now have turned towards this summer and beyond."
The challenge that awaits is, on the face of it, a routine one. Sri Lanka may have crushed England by 10 wickets in Colombo in their last meeting at the World Cup back in March, but the switch of formats and continents changes the dynamic significantly. Sri Lanka have not played a Test match outside of Asia since the tour of West Indies in April 2008, and with an untried captain in Tillakaratne Dilshan, and an under-rated bowling attack shorn of the retired Muttiah Muralitharan, the reluctant Lasith Malinga and even the uncapped Nuwan Pradeep, their immediate prospects are not the rosiest.
And yet, to under-estimate Sri Lanka is to invite embarrassment, as England have discovered all too often in recent meetings. Five years ago, in their first home series since the 2005 Ashes, England failed to close out a Lord's Test that they had dominated from day one, and ended up being mugged by Muralitharan on a spinning deck at Trent Bridge. Four years prior to that they were batted to a standstill by Marvan Atapattu and Mahela Jayawardene, and forced to follow on, while Jayawardene, who is returning for his fourth Test tour of England, is the sole survivor of Sri Lanka's finest hour in this country, the Oval Test victory of 1998.
Plenty of precedents of which to take note, then, and even on this current trip Sri Lanka have retained their capacity to surprise. Strauss himself ended up on the losing side for Middlesex at Uxbridge despite opening the match with a big hundred, while the England Lions suffered an even more remarkable set-back at Derby last week, when they were stunned by a final-day turnaround despite securing a first-innings lead of 227.
"They are a very good side," said Strauss. "In both games they have played they have come back from difficult positions in the match and come back to win those games. We will not be taking that lightly. They have got some very high-quality players in their ranks and we are under no illusions that we are going to have to be at our best to overcome their challenge."
Whatever early-season rust may exist for England, it is surely preferable to the end-of-odyssey exhaustion that afflicted the squad in the latter stages of the World Cup. Their replenished enthusiasm was evident as Strauss likened the reconvening to the "first day of school", but he stopped short of trumpeting the Cardiff Test as a homecoming for England's Ashes heroes. The Barmy Army have their own plans to honour the players for their efforts, but too much time and distance has elapsed for any self-congratulations.
"If we were going to have a homecoming that would have taken place a long time ago," said Strauss. "This is the start of a new cycle in a way. It is start of a very busy and difficult summer for us and it is obviously hopefully an opportunity for us to make a step forward to becoming No. 1 in the world. That excites us and I think for us to be thinking too much back to what happened in Sydney at this stage is not helpful."
|This is the start of a new cycle in a way. It is start of a very busy and difficult summer for us and it is obviously hopefully an opportunity for us to make a step forward to becoming No. 1 in the world Andrew Strauss on England's summer|
Strauss himself intends to have plenty more opportunities to obsess about the Ashes in years to come, with the back-to-back series in 2013-14 his obvious end-game now that he has retired from one-day cricket. But as Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan proved at the tail-end of their own careers, the end when it comes can be swift and unforeseeable. All the more reason, therefore, to savour the here-and-now.
"With slightly less demands on my plate there is obviously a chance I could go on longer," he said. "I just know it is very dangerous to look too far in the future. All I can concentrate on is trying to do as well as I can for the time being, and mentally I feel very fresh. In a way it is quite a nice thing to concentrate on one format and make sure my game is in as good order as possible for one format, rather than drifting between all formats."
Come June and the start of the one-day leg of Sri Lanka's tour, Alastair Cook will be the man in the hot seat, as he seeks to justify his elevation to ODI captain despite not having featured in the side for almost 18 months. By then, however, he will have had three Tests to restate his run-scoring credentials, and while returns as prolific as his 766 runs in the Ashes might not come about every day, Strauss was confident that the forgotten hero of England's winter would settle back into the squad without a glitch.
"He's really pleased to be back among the group," said Strauss. "He's been away quite a long time and there's been quite a lot of water passed under the bridge since that Sydney Test match. He'll be really desperate to reconnect to what he was doing well in that Ashes series and there's no reason why he can't do that. We can't expect him to average 90 every series but if he can have a good series at the top of the order that makes it easier for the guys lower down."
Because of Paul Collingwood's retirement, it will not be a complete reunion for England, though the selections of Eoin Morgan and Steven Finn in the 12-man squad ensure a level of continuity that Sri Lanka cannot hope to replicate. The personnel who excelled in Australia are all present and correct. All that remains to be addressed is the attitude.
"If we drift into the summer and don't hit top gear straightaway, the No. 1 spot could seem like a long way off," said Strauss. "There's a lot of motivation now for us to take the next step. I will be very disappointed if any of the players are resting on their laurels or anything like that. But we need to hit ground running. There is no doubt about that."
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