Strauss expects another gripper
Andrew Strauss's first day back at the scene of his greatest triumph as England captain was spent fielding inquiries about the state of Joe Denly's knee, while defending his team against accusations of foolishness for persisting with their habit of playing football as part of their warm-up routine. It could hardly been further removed from the glory with which he departed the ground on the evening of August 23, having secured the Ashes with a 197-run victory in the decisive fifth Test.
Nevertheless, as Strauss returned to the helm after a richly-deserved break following his Man-of-the-Series performance in the Tests, the injury furore served as a useful reminder of the brand-new challenge that lies ahead. Starting under The Oval's floodlights on Friday, England have a minimum of ten ODI fixtures in a row, seven at home against Australia and three in the group stages of the ICC Champions Trophy in South Africa, in which to hone their 50-over technique and maybe, just maybe, end their search for that first global limited-overs title that has eluded their grasp for almost four decades.
Such a notion remains utterly improbable, especially coming in a month in which England's disdain for 50-over cricket has been telegraphed by the ECB's abandonment of the format at domestic level. Nevertheless, as England's players demonstrated with their muted Ashes celebrations, and as Strauss reiterated in a perfunctory back-to-business press conference, an international side's next challenge is always the biggest challenge - and seven ODIs against a vengeance-seeking Australia side is not something they'd be wise to take lightly.
"There's not a lot of time to dwell on the past in international cricket," said Strauss. "There's always a new challenge there, and now we've got an extended period of one-day cricket to immerse ourselves in, and use the feel-good factor from the Ashes to propel us to play better cricket. Coming back to the guys, there's a great feeling in the camp, an excitement about what those guys who were involved have achieved, as well as for the guys coming in who've been watching it, and want to be involved in international cricket again.
"It's great to have a squad of players together for an extended period of time in one-day cricket," he added. "We don't have that luxury very often, and you can get some really good stuff done, both by performing consistently and from the work you can do behind the scenes. You can really make improvements in your fielding and gameplans to certain bowlers."
England's one-day fortunes have been a laughing stock for several years, and so it comes as something of a surprise to find them ranked as high as No. 4 in the world - higher even than their current Test position of No. 5. Nevertheless, among their more recent achievements, they did beat the No. 1 side, South Africa, 4-0 in the corresponding series in September 2008, before winning their first-ever ODI series in the Caribbean in the spring of 2009.
And, lest it be forgotten, England did emerge from a bruising tour of Australia in 2006-07 with the CB Series trophy in their grasp, after a remarkable heist in the finals at Melbourne and Sydney - which is all the more reason to fear an Australian backlash after the manner in which they were defeated in the Ashes this time around. Strauss is certainly braced for what lies ahead.
"This is a great way to prepare for the Champions Trophy but any series against Australia is an event in its own right," he said. "I suppose from our recent experiences in one-day cricket we are looking to improve our consistency. We have see-sawed from very good to very bad, and that's something we need to address. But this has got all the makings of a tight series, with two sides at similar stages of their development. Hopefully we'll grab it by the scruff of the neck and get on top of them early."
One man who will be particularly motivated to make England's lives difficult will be Brett Lee, who was left stewing on the sidelines for the final two Tests of the Ashes despite declaring his full recovery from a side strain that had ruled him out of the first three matches, and who bagged Denly for a golden duck in the only over that any of Australia's bowlers managed to complete during the aborted Twenty20 series.
"He's obviously chomping at the bit to get out on the field and play," said Strauss. "He's a proven performer at international cricket, and I'm sure he'll be very motivated to do well in this series. I'm sure he'll come hard at us, and it's important we have the right gameplan to contend with that."
Michael Clarke, Australia's stand-in captain, said that Lee was looking as fit and focussed as at any time in his career, but stressed that the coming series was a big event for the whole team, not just for individuals. And for Clarke himself, captain for the first three matches while Ricky Ponting takes a break, it is a timely opportunity to show what he can do as a leader, and a potential successor to Ponting in the long-term.
"It's a great opportunity for me," he said. "Any chance I've been given already to captain Australia, I've really tried to make the most of. I really enjoy it but like I've said before, there's no doubt that Ricky's our captain and our leader, and I look forward to having him back. I'd like to get three wins under our belt so when he comes back, life's a little bit easier for him, but more importantly, all the boys are feeling really good."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo