The ecstatic reaction of the England team to Wednesday's NatWest Series victory over Pakistan highlighted how desperate Andrew Strauss and his side were to finish the summer on a high. The triumph allowed the team to complete victories in each of the six Test, one-day and Twenty20 series they played in what was, cricket-wise, a low-key summer.
The satisfaction and confidence gained from the series wins will allow England's Ashes squad and the team's supporters to travel to Australia believing they can – at worst – retain cricket's most historic prize. After all, Australia are a shadow of the team they once were. With the exception of their captain, Ricky Ponting, all the greats have gone. There is now a workmanlike feel to cricket's greatest modern team.
Even so it would be naive and foolish to think the Ashes were simply there for the taking. Australia remains an unbelievably difficult place to leave as a winner – a feat England have achieved on just three of the last 13 Ashes series there. Not for nothing are England captains who have won Down Under held in legendary status. The encouraging thing for England is that, like Strauss, the previous two Ashes winning captains, Mike Gatting and Mike Brearley, both had the honour of captaining Middlesex CCC.
There are no shocks in the squad England announced yesterday and it is difficult to be critical of it as it contains the best cricketers in the country. The batsmen picked themselves, although I am amazed Eoin Morgan – the only player to have played in every England match this summer – has not received a central contract. What more could he have done?
Steve Davies merits being Matthew Prior's understudy and Chris Tremlett, Davies' Surrey team-mate, deserves his seaton the plane too. Tremlett has bowled well this summer and his attitude has improved. If he bowls as he can, he will be a real handful for Ponting and Co. There have been some who have questioned the wisdom of picking three fast bowlers who stand at six feet and six inches or more. What nonsense – it didn't seem to worry the West Indies when Curtley Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Ian Bishop were in their pomp. Batsmen hate steep bounce and Stuart Broad, Steven Finn and Tremlett will make life uncomfortable for Australia's top order.
Monty Panesar is another who has earnt a recall. Panesar has benefitted from moving to Sussex and has experience of playing in Australia. The latter is an area where England's bowlers are lacking. James Anderson is the only other England bowler to have played in an Ashes series in Australia – and he had a miserable tour in 2006/07, where his five wickets cost 83 runs apiece. Both he and Panesar conceded more than four runs an over, too.
These statistics, along with those of England's batsmen – only Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood had good tours in 2006/07 – will not be lost on the Australian media and public when Strauss' side land in Perth in November. Nothing unites Australia quite like the arrival of the Poms. From the moment you walk through customs they are on your case, belittling your achievements and highlighting your shortcomings.
I hear and read cricketers who have never played in Australia say that the crowds, media and Aussie players will not get to them. Well, we will see. You can have all the training you want but nothing prepares you for standing five yards in front of three thousand well-oiled Aussies for six hours. On the three Ashes tours I went on, I witnessed the confidence of quite strong characters evaporate on the back of the constant haranguing they received.
It is worse for bowlers because, invariably, it is they who field on the boundary. For hour after hour "fair dinkum Aussies" will abuse you from behind the advertising boards. They will tell you "you're shit", "you're a loser", "you're a busted flush", "you've no heart" and "you're weak as piss". They will ask: "What's your wife up to while your here, mate?" and inform you "I hear she cooks a bloody good breakfast". In isolation the stick is easy to take but after a while it gets you down.
Despite all this, an Ashes tour is the highlight of an England player's career. It is the one you want to go on. The excitement those 16 players will feel when they meet up at Heathrow to travel to Australia will be unparalleled and when you walk out in Brisbane, Melbourne or Sydney you know you have made it.
The cricket is hard but rewarding. If you are up to it you will do well, if you are not you will get exposed. Nowhere in sport is the statement "survival of the fittest" more applicable.
This England side has an excellent chance of retaining the Ashes but a 1-1 or 2-2 series draw is more realistic than a series win.