England's heightened expectations
To give some measure of the task that lies in wait this winter, England have won the Ashes in Australia on just four occasions in 17 visits since the Second World War. What is more, when they last achieved the feat, in 1986-87, one of the fast bowlers to whom they've entrusted the challenge this time around, Steven Finn, had not yet been conceived, while another, Stuart Broad, was barely six months old as his father Chris secured his own place in folklore with three hundreds in the five Tests.
For all of the ECB's eagerness to draw a line under a poisonous series against Pakistan and turn the sport's attention to the most storied contest of them all, the ultimate prize of an Ashes victory Down Under is one that is granted barely once in a generation, and a challenge that can never be undertaken lightly, as seven of the squad know only too well from their bruising experience from the 2006-07 tour. "Having not won down there for 24 years it would be an outstanding achievement if we win," said the England team's managing director, Hugh Morris. And that was putting it mildly.
Nevertheless there was something about the squad that was unfurled at The Oval on Thursday that inspired a confidence that has not been equalled in recent times. It wasn't just that 13 of the 16 names picked themselves after an 18-month stint in which they haven't lost a Test series, nor that the glitzy announcement (with portentous musical accompaniment) reinforced the point that England are the holders of the Ashes and that they intend to cling on at all costs. The most significant aspect, arguably, was the clarity of thought that went into those three marginal decisions.
Tim Bresnan's selection ahead of Ajmal Shahzad was the decision that raised the most eyebrows, but when viewed as part of a whole that includes Finn, Broad and the newly recalled Chris Tremlett - three quicks who between them form the tallest English attack ever to travel to Australia - it's fair to second-guess why the lankier of the two Yorkshire prospects was given the last official berth in the party, even though Shahzad will travel with the team to provide support in the warm-ups ahead of the Brisbane Test.
"There are plans ahead," admitted England's national selector Geoff Miller. "Size obviously does matter - there are going to be some bouncy wickets over there and we obviously have cover in the bouncy areas. But we also have people who can swing as well, so there is a good cross-section there and everything has been taken into consideration. The planning has been a long time in the making."
In his solitary Test at Old Trafford back in June, Shahzad produced some prodigious reverse-swing to encourage the notion that he could travel to Australia as England's point-of-difference bowler - the man to mix it up with hustle, bustle and magic balls when the side was in need of a pick-me-up. But to watch the manner in which James Anderson has changed his tune and tightened his lines this summer has been instructive. While harvesting 32 wickets at 16.84 in six Tests, Anderson served up 76 maidens, or one-third of his season's tally of Test overs.
Hooping the ball around corners is a lovely idea in theory, but with the Kookaburra ball and under clear blue skies, England's default approach will be to give Australia nothing to hit for five Tests in a row - and the best way of doing that is to ping the ball down on a good length from as high a starting point as possible.
To that end, and for all that it will dredge up those old doubts about the size of his ticker, Tremlett's recall is an exciting selection - and one that was largely instigated by David Saker, England's bowling coach, whose approach since joining the set-up ahead of the World Twenty20 in May has been to accept no pre-conceived notions and to judge all candidates for selection on the merits that have got them to the top.
Having shifted from Hampshire to reboot his career in an eye-catching debut season for Surrey, Tremlett believes he's a changed man from the timid performer who claimed just one wicket in three one-day appearances on the one-day leg of England's last trip to Australia, and the selectors seem to agree. "Last season I stopped enjoying the game a little, and that's why I felt I needed a fresh start," he told Surrey TV. "I think my confidence is as high as it's ever been, and I've surprised myself a little bit by doing as well as I have and staying on the park as long as I did."
As self-endorsements go, Tremlett's words are not exactly the most passionate you'll ever hear, but then again, that's simply not his style, just as Anderson's demeanour also tends towards introspection. With three first-class games and some of the best nets facilities in the world in which to make his case for selection, Tremlett will have every chance to push himself into the frame if he really is the changed character that the Surrey management proclaim him to be. And should he fade into the background, a la Joey Benjamin in 1994-95, then at least England will not have committed the mistake they made in 1998-99, when the best tall bowler in the country, Andrew Caddick, was left behind in Taunton because no -one trusted him to fit in.
The other key selection is that of the second spinner. James Tredwell was Graeme Swann's understudy in Bangladesh, and he let no one down with his diligent performance on debut in Dhaka, where he claimed six wickets to help secure the series. But as a man for an occasion such as Sydney or Adelaide, when two slow bowlers could well come into the equation, there could be no ignoring Monty Panesar, another player for whom a change of county, from Wantage Road to Hove, has led to an upsurge in his fortunes.
Four years ago in Australia, when his career was still on an upward trajectory, Panesar became a cause celebre due to Duncan Fletcher's reluctance to pitch him into the contest, and when he could be held back no longer for the third Test in Perth, he responded with eight wickets on his Ashes debut, including a first-innings five-for, a feat that not even Shane Warne had managed at the WACA.
"Monty has been to Australia before and did well once he got in the side," said Miller. "It was up to him to go away and resurrect his career. There were times we thought he was not thinking for himself, but he has been given the onus to do that at Sussex. He has set his field and had conversations with his captain and coach, and he has developed as a person."
It could well be that none of the three marginal selections actually gets a game in the Ashes. The first-choice XI is more or less set in stone, with Ian Bell due to take Eoin Morgan's berth at No. 6 from the side that saw off Pakistan at Lord's last month. But the sense you get is of a squad with no passengers, least of all among the bowlers, upon whom the real burden will fall this winter. Only in the victories of 1978-79 and 1986-87, when Australia's fortunes were close to rock-bottom, have Ashes tours been won without a paceman making an indelible mark. In 1954-55 Frank Tyson forged his legend; in 1970-71, that honour fell to John Snow. If a similar star is to be born in 2010-11, England have ensured they've got their bases covered.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo