There are those who think England's last defence of the Ashes was doomed from the moment they launched a marathon celebration party right under Australia's noses in 2005. Others believe the rot set in a couple of months later when Michael Vaughan joined the casualty list. And some still reckon the selectors should shoulder much of the blame for a 5-0 whitewashing Down Under after appointing Andrew Flintoff, rather than Andrew Strauss, as stand-in captain.
Well, it's all history now. But with the next trip to Australia only three months away, and despite that clatter of wickets at Trent Bridge yesterday, there is every reason to suggest the England class of 2010 are in an altogether better shape than their 2006 counterparts. Lessons have been learned, progress has been made and, crucially, injuries have not turned too many of last summer's Ashes winners into walking wounded. Not yet, anyway (and please keep those fingers firmly crossed).
When England sealed a 2-1 series win at The Oval last August, Strauss – by then the undisputed and almost universally acclaimed leader – made sure his team enjoyed their triumph without ever losing sight of the fact they were at the start of a long journey, not over the finishing line.
True, they would not all proceed in the same direction, with Andrew Flintoff having already announced his retirement from Test cricket and Steve Harmison just about at the end of the road. But, unlike four years earlier, England had the makings of a squad, rather than just a team, and now – with another Ashes campaign within drooling distance – competition for places is stronger than ever.
The only other player missing from last year's Oval XI is Ian Bell, who should have recovered from a broken bone in his foot well before the end of this summer. Kevin Pietersen – who sat out most of the last Ashes with an injury of his own – Eoin Morgan and Steven Finn are the welcome additions taking on Pakistan at Trent Bridge, while Tim Bresnan, Ajmal Shahzad and Ravi Bopara will hope to figure at some stage during this series.
Add Monty Panesar, steadily rebuilding his confidence and rediscovering top form with Sussex, Adil Rashid, Steven Davies and Craig Kieswetter to the mix, and England have more than enough front-line candidates for a 16-man squad to tour Australia. And that is without mentioning the fast bowler Graham Onions, who played three Ashes Tests and three more in South Africa over the winter before succumbing to the back injury that has wrecked his summer.
Given that Flintoff, with his dodgy knee, was clearly on borrowed time last year, Onions is the only real Ashes casualty. So far. But four years ago, the team of 2005 had lost Simon Jones, Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick to injury or illness between series against Australia. And the selectors were so desperate to cling to past glories that they gambled on Geraint Jones and Ashley Giles instead of cutting their losses. Gambled and lost.
"How did we lose the Ashes to this lot?" was the question posed on the back page of an Aussie newspaper when England launched their 2006-07 tour with a one-day defeat in Canberra. "You didn't," would have been the honest answer, because that team were a pale imitation of the side who had succeeded 15 months earlier.
No team could breathe easily after losing three players of the calibre of Vaughan, Trescothick and Simon Jones. But while Strauss must hope he does not have to find out exactly how much strength in depth England possess these days, there is reason to believe that the toughest decisions this winter will concern who to leave out of the XI, rather than who to put in.
Take the batting department, for example. Were Bell to be fit (and he won't be) for Friday's Second Test against Pakistan at Edgbaston, who would miss out? Morgan? What, after that terrific century at Trent Bridge? Jonathan Trott? Hang on, he scored a double hundred two matches ago. Pietersen, then? Some might like to show KP that no one is irreplaceable but the old expression about noses and faces springs to mind. OK then, Alastair Cook. But hold fire, he made three centuries in just five Test matches last winter.
It is a similar story among the fast bowlers. Jimmy Anderson has learned that no one, not even someone encouraged to think of himself as the leader of the attack, is beyond being dropped. Left out of the World Cup-winning Twenty20 side in the Caribbean and then omitted from this summer's final one-day international against Bangladesh, Anderson needed Friday's five-wicket haul at Trent Bridge – for his own peace of mind.
"There has been a lot of competition over the past few months and a couple of guys were unlucky to miss out here," said Anderson. "I think competition is really helpful and it is what you need in a team to succeed. All three of us [Anderson and his pace partners Stuart Broad and Finn] know we have to keep putting in good performances to keep our spots." And that is the way it should be.
England beat Pakistan 3-0 immediately before their last Ashes defence (well, 2-0 plus a "ball-tampering" Test forfeiture at The Oval) and they will do well to match that result this summer because of the potency of their opponents' bowling. But in terms of building a squad to win in Australia for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century, Strauss's new England are streets ahead of the 2006 model.
Ashes to Ashes
After the 2005 Ashes:
Lost 2-0 in Pakistan
Drew 1-1 in India
Drew 1-1 at home to Sri Lanka
Beat Pakistan 3-0 at home
Beat World XI 1-0
Beat West Indies 3-0 at home
Beat South Africa 2-0 at home
Beat South Africa 3-0 away
Beat Bangladesh 2-0 away
After the 2009 Ashes:
Drew 1-1 in South Africa
Beat Bangladesh 2-0 away
Beat Bangladesh 2-0 at home
Beat West Indies 2-0 at home
Beat Pakistan 3-0 at home
Beat New Zealand 2-0 away
Drew 1-1 with Pakistan in England.
David LloydReuse content