Swann to accept mission possible
England have best chance in decades to retain the Ashes Down Under but the Aussies won't go quietly
Onward then and upward. To the stars as far as England are concerned after the most demanding of all seasons. Their mission in the next seven months is straightforward: win the Ashes in Australia for the first time in 24 years, and win the World Cup for the first time full stop.
Mission impossible no, but improbable certainly and to achieve both objectives it will probably take the cricketing equivalent of breaking into an impenetrable CIA vault while suspended in mid-air trying not to trigger the most sensitive security sensors imaginable. But the feeling is that Graeme Swann is capable of anything at present.
For now the World Cup can wait. All roads lead to the Ashes and Brisbane on 25 November. England have selected a predictable squad for the task and, leaving nothing to chance, they have also picked a Performance Programme team of 16 in support.
A month ago, it was obvious that England's senior players were growing slightly weary of talking about the Ashes so far in advance. What they would have given to return to the subject in the weeks that have just passed when the ugly issue of match-fixing has refused to recede.
The end of Pakistan's tour could not come soon enough. There were myriad reasons for calling it off but there were as many for it to continue. The atmosphere at the Rose Bowl on Wednesday night, highly charged and exciting, showed the right decision had been made. The right team, England – albeit aided by the toss – probably won as well.
It will be months before the issues so vexatiously raised in the past month are resolved. Those who raised them, as a passing fancy, will move on to other matters. Cricket cannot afford to do that. England may take legal action against Ijaz Butt, the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, for his wild allegations. In addressing a cancer which may not exist in the virulent form that some of the more excitable pundits have suggested, cricket must try to establish not only how to eradicate it but what truly causes it.
By the time it is all resolved the Ashes could be over, but what a mood of expectation there is now. Perhaps it is heightened by the realisation that the dark days have gone and sunlit uplands are beckoning. Who would have thought a month ago that Chris Tremlett would be offered the opportunity to become an Ashes hero?
For reasons best known to themselves, England have gone on a bonding session for four days. Apparently they are not fed up with the sight of each other after a season which began in April, or February if you count the Bangladesh tour. If it helps to devise plans to ensnare terracotta urns, all well and good. England have their best chance for decades of retaining the Ashes in Australia. They last did so in 1986-87 when Mike Gatting's side were not tipped to keep the prize won in 1985 by David Gower's side.
This will not be easy because Australia being Australia, they are developing a new team of their own. They may spring on England some new fast bowlers like Josh Hazelwood, only 19, and Peter George. Hazelwood's cause for a dramatic debut has been diminished by having to withdraw from the squad to tour India because of a stress fracture to his back.
England will take untold heart from the fact that the marquee names are no longer around. When they went to Australia four years ago as holders of the Ashes, they had to deal with the legends Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Hayden and Langer and were hammered. Not this time, and whatever the final scoreline, it will not be 5-0. But the worst error England could make is to think that Australia will go quietly. Under their fearsomely competitive captain, Ricky Ponting, they will fight until the last of their cricketing breath has been squeezed from them, and still they might get up again.
England's side is not as strong as its selectors would quite have us believe. The bowling on some days can veer towards the ordinary and doubts must persist about the penetrative qualities of the seam bowling in Australian conditions with the generally unresponsive Kookaburra ball.
Nor has England's batting given uniform reason for optimism in what has been a bowling summer. They will need Kevin Pietersen to return to something like normal. At this distance, however, it is possible to predict that England's two key players in retaining the Ashes are a spin bowler who seemed to be going nowhere two years ago and a batsman marked for greatness from being a teenager who has so far resisted it.
All the names announced on Thursday were important but Graeme Swann and Ian Bell can change the course of matters. Not long now.
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