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James Lawton: So what were they playing at in the Ashes?

The truth is, you get the respect you deserve, on or off the field

Astonishing, no doubt. Stirring, without question. But before Tony Blair's appointments secretary starts to arrange another reception at Downing Street for England cricketers who have beaten, fair and square, the world's best team, let's first ask a rather important question.

What on earth, gentlemen, were you doing for the previous three months or so? Of course it's rhetorical. We know precisely what you were engaged in. It was one of the most shocking failures of professional application in the history of the nation's sport.

When the rain drove the players off the field at Sydney Cricket Ground for the last time yesterday, and confirmed a thoroughly deserved 2-0 English triumph, there were two ways to react and, after the understandable euphoria accompanying one of the greatest upsets of recent years, we can only hope that, from Freddie Flintoff down, the right one is made.

It is to savour the exquisite sight of an SCG empty of all but celebrating England fans and then get on with the business of treating victory and defeat with equal weight ... equal cause for a renewal of ambition and determination to step beyond the achievements, or the failures, of the past.

The other course is the one which was followed, with such predictable consequences, after the glory of Ashes triumph in the unforgettable summer of 2005.

It was unforgettable, though, only in the sense that it explained the exciting potential of a young England team to establish itself as the most formidable force in the game. It wasn't something to be dwelt on in an open-ended orgy of celebration and personal publicity.

That is old ground, now, but it is maybe worth re-visiting, however briefly, in the wake of this triumph.

Some do not need such a psychological detour and, more than anyone, this is true, yet again, of the magnificently dedicated Paul Collingwood. Once again he fought to his limits, steadying England's batting with a knock of 70 and then claiming two wickets as the Aussies were kept under the heel.

The pace bowler Liam Plunkett most impressively followed in his path in a team performance that was beyond the dreams of England supporters when the slaughter in the Ashes series was followed so seamlessly by abject defeats at the start of what was beginning to seem like an eternal exploration of one team's mastery of another in all aspects of the game.

The worry is that the boom-bust cycle of English sports will once again emerge. Long after the Ashes were decided, some England cricketers were still in denial. They were hurt by criticism and believed it excessive and in this they mirrored the escapism of England's footballers after their equally appalling attempts to make an impact on the World Cup in Germany.

Frank Lampard, who had been lauded all the way to Germany after a year in which he had brilliantly led Chelsea to another title, complained that his and his team-mates' past achievements warranted more "respect." Lampard is better acquainted now with the basic truth of any competition. It is that you get the respect you deserve - on and off the field.

One of the reasons England won in Sydney, and entitled themselves to leave with some rescued pride a country which had learnt to treat them with a terrible scorn, was that finally they had reminded Ricky Ponting and his team that they were indeed capable of making a fight of it, that what happened in England a year and a half ago was not a freak of nature but something built on passion and authentic talent.

For this England do indeed deserve congratulations, for the performance of a Collingwood and a Flintoff and a Plunkett when the pressure came one last time, and for the whole team's renovated spirit.

Inevitably, the position of the coach Duncan Fletcher has been secured as the team go into the World Cup - and maybe beyond. But does that invalidate the criticism that came to him when Monty Panesar was left out of the early Ashes action, when Geraint Jones was allowed to run down his Test career so abjectly, and England underperformed so grotesquely? And does anything that happened in Sydney deflect from the basic fact that the Ashes tour remains an unmitigated disaster?

No, it doesn't. What it says, mostly, is that England's cricketers were not as hopeless as they portrayed themselves for so long. What has happened now is that they have re-created a standard for themselves and this, you have to say, is the main reason for celebration today.