England prepare for Ashes lift-off

At 9.30pm tonight, England's cricketers depart from Heathrow Airport to embark on the biggest challenge of their sporting lives - the Ashes series in Australia. Already, their ignominious exit from the Champions Trophy has been consigned to the dustbin of history, as Andrew Flintoff and his squad prepare to focus on the five Test matches that could make or break their reputations.

"It's going to be incredible," Flintoff told The Sun on the eve of his side's departure. "Our win last summer was the first time I'd experienced The Ashes and it was an amazing, emotional roller-coaster. But this series it is likely to be even bigger and tougher because we're in Australia. It's a fantastic prospect for everyone on the trip."

Flintoff was England's leviathan in last summer's epic triumph, scoring 402 runs and taking 24 wickets to secure the narrowest of 2-1 victories. He is now the captain of the side as well, taking over where Michael Vaughan left off, and is relishing the challenge of leading the team out at Brisbane on the morning of November 23, a date that has been etched on his brain for months.

"I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about what it will be like leading out England in those matches. There'll be all the attention, all the spotlight, all the rivalry and all the history. Of course I've thought about it -- and it gives me a tingle. I'm chomping at the bit to get started."

It has been a race against time to get Flintoff fit for this tour, after his 2006 season was disrupted by a long-standing ankle problem that required further surgery. But he had a decent work-out during England's Champions Trophy campaign, spending some time out in the middle in the final match against West Indies and bowling five decent, if rusty, overs to boot.

Even so, he will remember only too well his traumatic experience on the last Ashes tour in 2002-03, when he arrived unfit after undergoing a hernia operation, and was forced to fly home without playing a single Test. "It was a pretty miserable time for me," he conceded. "But I'm fortunate to have another chance and I'm going to relish that rather than thinking what might have been.

"I'm not one for making big statements or predictions but we're going down there in a confident frame of mind. We'll have to play well to succeed, probably even better than we did in 2005. But we have lads who can perform at the highest level. I believe we have a good chance."

England arrive in Sydney, via Hong Kong, on Sunday afternoon, where they will enter into a maelstrom of publicity as the Australian public gear themselves up for a massive contest. "I don't know if the series can be as good as the one last year," said Flintoff, "but one thing I know is, it will be very tough and competitive."

England open their tour with a one-day game against an Australian Prime Minister's XI at Canberra on 10 November, followed by three-day games against New South Wales and South Australia.