After England won the Ashes in 2005, they had a party to end all parties. Sometime during this, it could be said, any potential legacy of the great triumph was flushed down the toilet.
The following winter the team went to Pakistan, and partly because they considered their work was done, partly because of untimely injuries, they were well beaten. Things were never to be the same, no combination of the 12 players who had prevailed against Australia ever took the field again. This time it will be different. This time, England are aware, Ashes or no Ashes, that they ain't done nothing yet.
In the immediate aftermath of their victory against Australia in the summer just gone, they might have wished for a less exacting assignment than a tour of South Africa. Not only are South Africa the world's best side in both one-day and Test cricket but their vastly accomplished captain, Graeme Smith, has propelled the downfall of two recent England captains. Both Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan felt compelled to resign during Test series against Smith's South Africa.
"Let's hope," said the present incumbent, Andrew Strauss, yesterday, the humorous aside doubtless tinged with a hint of worry, "that I'm not resigning in three months' time. He [Smith] is a very worthy adversary and combines being an excellent captain with being a formidable presence at the top of the order."
Smith has been captain of South Africa for six years, has led them in 68 Test matches and 121 one-day internationals and personifies their unyieldingly tough yet intermittently vulnerable nature. He has probably been waiting for this moment for four long years since England won the Test series in South Africa, and he will not have been exactly delighted by his side's recent one-day defeat in the Champions Trophy.
Strauss, recognising that Smith, still only 29, is no soft touch and indeed may be the hardest touch around, said: "He's still a relatively young man to take over at the age he did and obviously you have to be a certain type of person to be capable of doing that. He has forged a very strong alliance with the coach, Mickey Arthur. When you're at the top of the tree everyone is hunting you. This is our opportunity to hopefully knock them down a branch or two."
England have had three weeks away from cricket; South Africa, a brief foray in the recent Champions Trophy apart, have not played since April. It is not difficult to tell who will have the more refreshed players. England cannot whinge and do not, but they have a relentless job.
Arriving in South Africa this morning, 10 of the players will not leave until 18 January. By then, England, internationally, will have played two Twenty20 matches, five one-dayers and four Test matches. It is a wonderful occupation and the administrators are certain that someone has to do it. A month after they return, they will be off again to Bangladesh for more of the same.
England can expect to be greeted with cynicism in some quarters from the moment they land in Johannesburg this morning. It would be no surprise whatever if somebody thought it was a wizard idea to have Frank Sinatra's dulcet tone emanating from the airport muzak with: "It's nice to go travelling but it's so much nicer to come home."
Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott, Matt Prior and Strauss himself were all born in South Africa. In the case of Prior and Strauss, they left as schoolboys, but the other two did not make the decision to come to England until they had finished their education.
Trott's selection has, right or wrong, only reminded everybody of Pietersen's origins and instigated debate. It was given further impetus by the publication last week of the former captain Michael Vaughan's autobiography, Time To Declare, in which the author was critical of Trott. He was upset to have seen Trott patting South Africans on the back in the immediate aftermath of their series victory in England last year, and although he hailed Trott's century on his Test debut in the Ashes decider against Australia at The Oval, he could not resist saying: "I suppose you could wish he was a bit more English." Strauss, like the team coach, Andy Flower, in his valedictory press conference on Friday, was having none of it. "From our point of view of trying to win the Test series, the fact that we have got four players born in South Africa is not going to be a big issue," he said. "It's one of those things that might bubble along in the background. The selectors sit down and pick the 15 best England-qualified players, and the fact that some of them have been born out of these shores is of no consequence and nor should it be.
"In order to make it to Test cricket you have to show a lot of determination and hunger and desire, and the fact that Pietersen and Trott came over later in their lives means nothing. They have obviously had that determination, hunger and desire possibly more than some other people in county cricket. They deserve to be playing for England because of that.
"It's easy to start looking at where you were born and all that sort of stuff but it doesn't really matter. It's about how willing you are to put in the hard yards, to make the best of yourself as a cricketer."
As long as Trott is fully assimilated in the England dressing room – as has been Pietersen, who will not join the squad until next week as he completes his recovery from Achilles surgery – it will be, as Strauss averred, of no consequence. But it is an issue and it will not disappear. Perhaps it is to this country's credit that it can embrace players from other nations – perhaps – but do not suppose that those other nations will allow the transfer of allegiance to be forgotten.
That will be one task facing Strauss's side in the weeks ahead. Overcome that easily and they may, just, have a chance of beating the world's No 1 team. It would be worth a big party.
Six of the best: How to have a great tour
1. Keep Andrew Strauss fit
With due respect to vice-captain Alastair Cook, he might be exposed in a Test. Cook has little senior captaincy experience simply because of the meteoric nature of his rise. Extremely self-possessed chap though he is, his form has been fitful enough of late for him to have quite enough on his plate.
2. Stick to the plan
England have declared their intent to come out slugging in one-day cricket. They intend to attack at the start and in those tricky middle overs. The policy is fraught with risk and could fail a time or two. But they must adhere to the bold principle. Slightly complicated by the need not to go into the Test series after a heavy one-day defeat, but he who dares and all that...
3. Rotate the selection
England have had precious little rest and whatever nine-to-five folk think, they will still be footsore. It is imperative that they develop the policy of rotating the players, particularly fast bowlers, especially but not exclusively in one-day cricket, even when that means changing a winning side.
4. Improve their fielding
England's fielding still has the potential to embarrass. But they have at last picked a limited-overs squad which recognises that athleticism and cricketing skill are not mutually exclusive. Fielding coach Richard Halsall seems to be getting through to them but they still do not hit the stumps often enough in tense, fleeting positions.
5. Individual responsibility
When Strauss took over, he said he wanted players to be more responsible for the way they prepared. If they have done that, it has not always been reflected in results. The batsmen have continually sold their wickets much too cheaply and that must cease from the start.
6. Remember the 2005 Ashes
What jubilation, what expectation there was back then. And it led to inexorable decline. That has been arrested now with the Ashes triumph of last summer, but if there are any laurels around, England must avoid sitting on them. There is big business ahead. Coach Andy Flower insists the team are hungry and they can show that only by running South Africa close.
Stephen BrenkleyReuse content