24 August 2009. Before an adoring throng, perched on the shoulders of those giants who form an equally adulatory team, Kevin Pietersen raises above his head a small urn on the boundary at The Oval. England have regained the Ashes, at the first time of asking. The trophy is a replica; there has been nothing fake about England's performances. Having been forced to endure 16 years of waiting after the previous occasion they surrendered the game's greatest prize, the gap this time has lasted a mere one year and 237 days. England, under their inspirational captain, have been irresistible. Australia, hugelycompetitive, have been weary. Time has caught up with them.
7 September 2008. That is a possible scenario, the one favoured by all Englishmen, which resides permanently in the mind's eye. Most of the time, it never goes beyond that. But the events of the past couple of weeks, rightly or wrongly, seem to have lent it credence. England, under Pietersen, are capable of winningthe Ashes next summer and Australia, under Ricky Ponting, are equally capable of losing them.
The confidence in England's chances may be grossly misguided, and Australia havealready pointed out the stupidity of even talking about it so far ahead. But it is what matters above all: nothing of a cricketing nature in either country can match it, nothing can so complete a career. It is why England were so extraordinarily jubilant on that day three years ago next Friday when the Ashes came home. It is why Australia spent the next year-and-a-bit obsessing about regaining them, and not only that but planning annihilation, which they duly achieved.
Time is pressing for both countries, though for differing reasons. England announced on Friday that they will not name their squad for the Test tour of India until 29 September, two days after the Championship season ends. But they are sufficiently confident to name as early as this Tuesday their centrally contracted players, the squad for the Stanford Twenty20 winner-takes-virtually-all match in Antigua and the seven-match one-day series in India which immediately precedes the Tests.
There is sound cricketing logic for this, but conjecture also insists the late announcement of the Test squad gives more time for favourite old sons, notably Michael Vaughan and, to a lesser extent, Andrew Strauss, to find some semblance of the form that made them such formidable players awhile. In other words, to let the selectors off the hook.
Other batting candidates, Owais Shah and Ravi Bopara, could also do with early-autumn runs, though perhaps not as urgently or as heavily as fringe candidates such as Joe Denly and Robert Key of Kent. Having risen, Key's star is falling again before he has had the opportunity to be recalled. The bowling places appear to be nailed on. It may actually suit this bunch of selectors that there are not candidates beating down their door with weight of runs and wickets.
England have to pick players with the Ashes in mind. By far the toughest of their eight Tests before then are the first two, against India. The other six, four in the West Indies and two at home, supposedly against Sri Lanka, do not promise such tough competition. West Indies have improved but remain brittle Test cricketers, still bereft of the hard-nosed self-belief which once complemented their cricketing magnificence. Sri Lanka's players, even if they can be persuaded to abandon their lucrative contracts in the Indian Premier League, would wish to play anywhere but England in May.
If England have players in mind the selectors must pick them now. There can be no more Darren Pattinson moments during the Ashes. Considering that England have played so indifferently in Tests for almost two years, perhaps more, talking up their Ashes chances might be reckless. Were they not well beaten by South Africa barely a month ago?
But something has undoubtedly happened since Pietersen assumed command. True, he has not been truly tested yet, but he is so driven, ambitious and determined that he will not be easily deflected. The key moments will come when the opposition put England, and therefore his captaincy, under pressure. That could well happen in Rajkot, or Guwahati, or Ahmedabad this winter.
Survive those and even Australia start to look surmountable. The fitness of Andrew Flintoff is vital. He has hardly done anything in Test cricket since his return three matches ago but, as has been seen in the one-day series, his contribution is impossible to overestimate.
Talismans are not to be found on every street corner, in Preston or anywhere else. He might be just what England have been missing all this time. If England's marketing men do nothing else – and never mind the Twenny-twenny for twenny in the Caribbean – they could do worse than sign a sponsorship deal with a manufacturer of cotton-wool balls in which to wrap him.
Australia are pushed for time too. They have so precious little of it, and by the time the Ashes come round, they may conceivably have been pushed round from sub-continental pillar to sub-Saharan post. They have warmed up for their prolonged period of internationals with soft matches against Bangladesh.
But in fairly short order they must go to India for four Tests and play six against South Africa, three home, three away, as well as two against New Zealand. By the time they come to England they will be battle-hardened all right, even if they are not broken, and their bowlers will be mightily tired. So far, they have covered their tracks wonderfully after the departures of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, but always there is the sense that something must give soon. Next 24 August would be soon enough.Reuse content