No use living in the past

Can England recover in time to retain the Ashes next southern summer? Can a resurgent Australia be beaten a second time? It's going to be hard, writes PETER ROEBUCK.

No sooner had Marcello Lippi's Italian side seized the 2006 football World Cup than the silver haired coach was talking about the future. As his overjoyed players held aloft the prized trophy so their manager spoke about the dangers of living in the past and the pressing need to "set fresh goals".

It is easier for strong nations to survive triumph because it is expected. Contrastingly, Sri Lanka took years to recover from its victory in the cricket World Cup precisely because it was a breakthrough.

Nearly a year ago the England cricket team gathered in Trafalgar Square to acknowledge the cheers of a grateful nation. As far as a vast crowd was concerned their cricketing representatives had served them proud. No one questioned their right to a place alongside Nelson and other favoured sons. Sport, it was conceded, was of little significance beside defending the land from hostile forces. On the other hand, trouncing the Spanish or French or even the Germans was small fry beside the feat accomplished by these heroes. They had cracked sport's toughest nut. After 16 years of misery, the Australians had been beaten.

Revelry and ribaldry alike were forgiven as the victorious players waved to supporters. Nor were the celebrations limited to the mob. The Prime Minister invited them to Downing Street. The Head of State put a medal on the chests of every Tom, Dick and Geraint who had taken part. Nor did it end in a night or a week or a month. Books were written. Memoirs were published. Dinners were held. Keys were presented. The celebrations lasted longer than the series. The euphoria endured.

In some respects it was understandable. Much had been invested in that series. After decades of disappointment, England had risen from the ashes to recapture The Ashes. In those years of defeat, supporters and players alike had been humiliated, almost crushed. Nor had their opponents always been gracious in victory. Revenge had been eagerly awaited.

A craving developed that went beyond sport. When bad light stopped play on the penultimate afternoon of the fifth and final match, many supporters cheered. All too easily they accepted the invitation to join in renditions of Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem. When victory was sealed the reaction was overwhelming. Ecstasy was widespread. The ensuing agony was inevitable.

Even at the time, the frenzy that accompanied the beating of a feared opponent seemed to be ill-advised. A famous, mostly honourable and certainly deserved victory had been achieved. Far from regarding the Ashes victory as the start of a glorious new period, though, England seemed to rest upon its laurels. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff. True champions come to resemble vampires. Once they have tasted blood they want more. A single conquest does not satisfy them.

Meanwhile the Indians and Pakistanis and, as it turned out, the Sri Lankans were eager to prick the bubble of English presumption. For their part, the Australians were contemplating the causes of defeat and setting about correcting their mistakes. Andrew Flintoff and company walked straight into a series of ambushes. After decades spent in the shadows, England had forgotten about the dangers of the sun.

As far as English sport is concerned, it had happened before. It was the same with rugby. Years of hard work and planning were rewarded as the Australians were overcome in a compelling final. Outstanding leadership and coaching combined with a handful of superb players and a battle-hardened team had turned England into a powerful force. And still victory was not certain till the last kick of the last match.

After that heady night in Sydney, English rugby went into a steep decline. It was not merely a matter of complacency. In part the narrowness of the victory predicated the rapture and the collapse. Once released, long suppressed emotions are apt to run amok. Other factors were also at work. Distinguished servants hung up their boots. Important players suffered long term injuries. As well, though, there was a feeling abroad that the deed had been done. After years of struggle it must have been hard to avoid relaxing.

The cricketers must have been similarly affected. Kevin Pietersen admitted that he could barely concentrate on the ill-starred World X1 matches that followed the Ashes. His mind remained at The Oval, his spirit had not left Trafalgar Square.

Moreover, the cricketers have been dogged by bad luck. Although none of those taking part in the Ashes has retired, the team has suffered numerous injuries. Most particularly, Michael Vaughan, the side's calm and committed captain, has been forced from the field, a setback that has put even more weight upon Andrew Flintoff's broad shoulders. England has also lost its pace attack, with Simon Jones absent and Steve Harmison appearing fitfully. Ashley Giles has undergone surgery. He has been missed more than might be imagined because he adds balance and maturity to a team that needs every run and every ounce of stubbornness it can find.

Cricketers of this calibre cannot be replaced in five months let alone five minutes. Nor can a team be created from thin air. England's whole had been greater than its parts. Some promising cricketers have emerged, especially Alastair Cook, Monty Panesar and James Dalrymple, and a few lively pacemen have introduced themselves, but the team has lost both its familiarity and its edge.

Had England's influential players remained fit, the reaction to that glorious summer of 2005 might not have lasted as long. Without them, the team suffered a succession of damaging defeats. Opponents raised their games. England fell back. Flintoff tried to carry the side and eventually even his mighty limbs complained of their load.

Can England recover in time to retain the Ashes next southern summer? Can a resurgent Australia be beaten a second time? It's going to be hard.

Vaughan and Simon Jones will be missing. And Giles' prospects are unclear. The pace attack, crucial to the hopes of any side touring the antipodes, has been gutted. Weaker players have been exposed.

England looks vulnerable. But it's not merely about the names on a piece of paper. Cricket is also played in the mind. The truth of the matter is that Australia took about a week to get over its loss and England has taken almost a year to recover from its victory.