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February 8, 2011
At least the sun was shining, because there wasn't much else to be cheerful about as England's cricketers arrived back at Heathrow Airport, more than 100 days after their departure for Australia back in late October. In between their journeys through customs, the team found a perfect pitch around the 60-day mark of their tour, as the Ashes were sealed with a pair of thumping victories at Melbourne and Sydney, but thereafter it descended into tedium and acrimony, with Eoin Morgan's World Cup fate providing the perfect bum note on which to end a peculiar odyssey.
When Allan Border's men regained the Ashes after a four-year hiatus in 1989, they were treated to a tickertape parade through the streets of Sydney, and as for England's own exploits, the events of 2005 remain engrained on the retinas of fans of a certain age, with open-top buses and packed receptions in Trafalgar Square marking the end of a remarkable summer's contest.
Andrew Strauss was involved then, as he was now, but whereas 100,000 delirious fans had acclaimed the homecoming of the urn six years ago, this time England's emergence at Heathrow was greeted by a smattering of gawping spectators, and a solitary burst of applause from a man who might conceivably have been taking the mickey, given how listless the team has been during the 6-1 drubbing in the one-dayers.
It all felt distinctly unfair, to be honest. "I'm a little bit jaded because I've been on a plane for 24 hours," admitted Strauss, as he faced the media, dressed in his best bib and tucker and with (an oversized) replica urn from the Lord's gift shop perched on the table in front of him. Waxing about an event that culminated more than a month ago was hard enough in light of the travails that the team had encountered in the interim, but there was something rather absurd about the situation as well, given that the World Cup - of all immense contests - is looming quite so large, so soon.
"The nature of international cricket is you always move onto the next thing," said Strauss. "When we are old and grey we will sit down and look over the footage of that Ashes series, and we'll still be very proud of what we've achieved, and it will go down as one of the highlights, if not the highlight, of our careers. But now is the time to look forward to the World Cup, and if we were to complete the double of the Ashes and the World Cup in space of six months, that really would be the highlight of our careers."
Strauss was half right. Now, in fact, is the time to go into hiding for 72 hours, and suck up as much family time as possible before reconvening on the soulless Bath Road in Hounslow on Saturday, ahead of a ten-hour flight to Dhaka. Although the Prime Minister, David Cameron, had expressed a desire to greet the squad at 10 Downing Street, as Tony Blair had famously done in 2005, all such fripperies are completely off England's agenda. "I'm not going to go and knock on his door," joked Strauss, adding that the one person he would most definitely not be speaking to in the coming days is his sidekick, Andy Flower, with whom he has been in daily cahoots since the last week of October.
|100,000 delirious fans had acclaimed the homecoming of the urn six years ago, this time England's emergence at Heathrow was greeted by a smattering of gawping spectators|
Whether or not England have a realistic chance in the World Cup, the loss of Morgan is a cruel blow - albeit one exacerbated by some unusually lax work from the management and medical team, who allowed him to play on through two ODIs before finally realising that his performances were being hindered by something more serious than bruising. Nevertheless, there was a clear note of frustration in Flower's typically measured assessment, as he shifted the blame away from a player who had proved willing to push through the pain, and put it instead on an itinerary that allowed such an accident to occur so close to a major event.
"We've played three-and-a-half months of high intensity cricket, so we will pick up injuries, that's the nature of the sport," said Flower. "To have the tour ending just before the World Cup starts doesn't make a lot of sense to me. I think that's the lesson to be learnt."
There are some positive aspects of England's current situation. With positive news about the other five injury concerns in the squad, Strauss believed that the chance for rest and recuperation would ensure that they return to action with extra motivation - particularly the frontline bowlers, Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann and Tim Bresnan, whose understanding of their roles and ability to work in tandem had been integral to England's fortunes throughout their run of five ODI series wins in a row.
"The atmosphere at a World Cup will be very intoxicating and motivating," said Strauss. "All the best players in the world will be there, and ultimately only one team will walk away with that World Cup. Of course we would have liked to have won the one-day series as preparation, but a few of our guys haven't been involved and have had an opportunity to have rest through being injured. They are going to come back into the fold and hopefully add a huge amount of impetus for us moving forward. They should be fit, but they need to find some rhythm pretty quickly, because I believe our attack is a match for anyone in the world."
Once a wide-ranging press conference had been completed, it was time for Strauss to step out into the sunshine, and pose with the urn with his back barely 50 metres from the perimeter fence of Heathrow Airport. The incongruity was impossible to ignore - almost as incongruous, in fact, as his earlier opening statement had been. "Without a doubt this is the best and most successful tour I've been on," he had said, a fact that had rung so emphatically true in Sydney on January 8, but which felt wistfully hollow in London on February 8.
All of which begged the ultimate question. What exactly has this past month been all about? Answers on a postcard, please. But make sure it's addressed to the Sheraton in Dhaka. Because by the end of the week, there will be no-one at home to reply.
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