For England, amid an interminable one-day series, a grim truth has begun to dawn. This season was about recapturing the Ashes. Nothing else mattered, nothing else came close.
The loss of the two opening NatWest Series matches to Australia, in which England were in winning positions, has served only to emphasise that. The suspicion is that the real business has already been done and the rest is mere frippery.
The side's senior statesman, Paul Collingwood, almost admitted as much yesterday. He knew, like all his colleagues, that the side really ought to have nailed Australia at Lord's on Sunday in chasing a target of 250, as they should have won at The Oval two days earlier, needing 261. But the urgency, the desire, perhaps the will were simply not there.
"Let's be honest, we wanted to peak for the Ashes because we'd been building up to it," said Collingwood. "We played well, we won the Ashes, this period now could be a time when you start relaxing again or you've gone over the peak.
"But when you play Australia, you can't give them a sniff. Whether you are mentally tired or not, you have to go out and put in the performances. And we haven't been doing that."
Not all of England's one-day squad were involved in the Ashes but four of the top five batsmen and three bowlers were. Instead of being able to rest and reflect on their feat they were in action in a one-dayer in Ireland only three days after the Ashes campaign and then were straight into this seven-game series.
Full houses or not, the difficulties of sustaining the edge necessary in top-level sport have been obvious. Last year the boot was on the other foot. South Africa came to this country intent on winning a Test series here for the first time in more than 40 years.
Objective achieved, they were then faced with the less onerous, less prestigious one-dayers as well as an England side rejuvenated by a new captain Kevin Pietersen (how long ago that seems) and promptly lost 4-0. They minded not a jot.
England are less sanguine because they created winning positions and if it is clear they have missed both Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, it is possible they might have suffered from a similar lassitude.
"You peak for things like the Ashes," said Collingwood. "When you are playing for England all the time, you want to be 100 per cent all the time. But realistically you can't do that because of the amount we play and the amount of travel involved. Of course I go through periods when I'm feeling tired, mentally more than anything else. But you get used to the treadmill and I'm not going to make that an excuse for the performances. I've been doing it for eight years now."
No England player would criticise the schedule because it is largely the reason they are now so handsomely rewarded. But there is no time to take stock and something has to give. The players care, of course, but they suspect that their followers also believe the main mission of the season has been accomplished.
"It seems to me that the public of England are just interested in the Ashes," said Collingwood. "To us, as players, this is an important stepping stone, we want to continue improving our one-day cricket. That's what I'm saying – you have to be mentally up for it to beat Australia." But they might not be.
*Graham Onions has replaced injured all-rounder Andrew Flintoff in England's Champions Trophy squad. Onions takes Flintoff will also provide bowling cover for the rest of the NatWest Series against Australia.
Ponting quits T20 to focus on Test career
Ricky Ponting has retired from Twenty20 internationals and plans to have "set periods of rest" to prolong his Test and one-day career, but will not relinquish his lucrative Indian Premier League contract. Ponting, 34, is keen to return for the next Ashes in England in 2013. "Having returned from England with the taste in my mouth that I had, I was very keen to be able to try and give it every possible crack to be back there again," he said.Reuse content