The good ship Flintoff sets sail for dreamland

If England are still standing in the World Cup final in April, it will be a feat of endurance. But the Ashes are the target - as they were 52 years ago

On 15 September 1954 the SS Orsova set sail from Tilbury for Fremantle. On board were the MCC touring party for that winter, comprising 17 players, a manager, a baggage man-cum-scorer, and, for the first time, a masseur. There was also a media contingent numbering 54. They were not to return until 7 April, 205 days later.

The dockside was packed with well-wishers. The public interest in the tour was immense. England, having been deprived of the Ashes for 18 years and 362 days, spanning six series, had at last regained them 13 months earlier. Under the official banner of MCC, as they then still were, they were embarking on the great campaign to retain them.

Last Friday, England once more set out on their winter's business. This expedition also has as its centrepiece the Ashes. In the sense that they were regained 13 months previously after another gap bordering on the unendurable (16 years and 42 days, covering eight series), that England go as holders following a dramatic home rubber, and that the unmistakeable whiff of fervour is in the air, the comparison is close.

This winter is indubitably tougher. By comparison the modern player is mollycoddled, though do not assume that those of half a century ago exactly roughed it. But the demands on tour now are permanent; more or less every match is a big match. That is why the rewards are greater.

Cricketers, however, are still identifiable with the people who support them. That will be shown in every hotel in which they stay in the next seven months. Fifty-two years ago, the crowds were at Tilbury docks; now some 20,000 supporters will follow England.

In 1954-55, the winter consisted of 28 matches: seven Tests, 14 other first-class fixtures of four or three days (six of them before the First Test against Australia), one of three days which was not first-class, four of two days and two lasting a day, though they were not one-dayers as we now know them.

They were played in three countries: in Ceylon, where the Orsova berthed en route; in Australia; and in New Zealand. After the boat journey, the squad travelled between venues via a hotch-potch of internal flights, trains and coaches. There were 19 journeys between the various cities and upcountry grounds where they played. Occasionally, some went by air, others by rail. On one occasion Denis Compton (it would have to have been Compo) fixed it for the allocated train passes to be swapped for flight tickets.

Things have changed a bit. This winter, England - the MCC handle was dropped in 1977 - will also play in three countries. First, in India, where the squad arrived yesterday, comes the Champions Trophy, the so-called mini World Cup. In Australia come the Ashes and the VB one-day series. Finally, in the West Indies comes the World Cup.

From beginning to end, that is from last Friday, 6 October, until the World Cup final in Barbados on 28 April, the winter's cricket sojourn again spans 205 days. None of the England party will be away either from home or their families for that time. If - and the word can rarely have been bigger - England were to reach the final of the Champions Trophy, nine of the players could be on tour from now until the end of the VB series on 14 February, when they would have at most a fortnight to spend at home before embarking for the Caribbean.

Between times there will be family visits. Some of the squad with children not yet of school age, probably including the captain, Andrew Flintoff, will choose to have their families with them for most of the time. Others will be joined by them over Christmas and the New Year in Australia. Given events on other foreign fields, no matter how hard it gets, or how much they are up against it (and they may very well be) nobody would be advised to complain too much.

In 1954-55, England eventually had 18 players at their disposal. To show that some things do not change, Compton joined them later after knee surgery. This winter, there will be 14 in the Champions Trophy, 16 in the Ashes squad, nine of whom are in both. At least four are still not fully clear of long-term injury. There will be an additional 14 based in Perth as cover, under the auspices of the National Academy. It was pushing it a bit to suggest that you would be an unlucky England professional not to get on a winter tour, but not by much.

The lone masseur from 52 years back, Harold "Woozer" Dalton, has also been complemented. The England management in Australia will number 14. That will be increased to 15 if they can find a chief medical officer. The timing of the departure of the present incumbent, announced last week, was not entirely helpful to their cause. There will be six coaching staff, an operations manager, a physiologist, a physiotherapist and a massage therapist (presumably the Woozer of his times).

There will also be three media- relations personnel travelling to Australia. And if 54 seemed a mighty lot of reporters 52 years ago (and it was), the Australian cricket authorities have received almost 700 applications for accreditation this time, some of them from people who write regularly about cricket. It will be, from beginning to end, in all three venues but especially in Australia, a circus.

England will fly everywhere, making a possible 25 journeys. At most they will play 39 matches (which assumes one-day form beyond their wildest dreams), at least 28 (which assumes one-day form of their worst nightmares). Crucially, there will be at least 17 international matches. There may be 28, and if they reach the Super Eight stage of the World Cup, as they certainly ought to, there will be 34.

It will be humanly impossible to perform at their peak every time. Nobody will say here comes another bloody match, but they may feel it. Heaven forfend that they take their eye off the ball against Canada on 18 March, a date not yet looming large in their collective mind.

If England could choose one trinket to win out of all that is being laid before them in the next seven months, the choice would not be hard. When Flintoff and his men left on Friday, they were leaving to play the Champions Trophy. But all they had in mind was the Ashes. Everything, simply everything, including a huge amount of medical attention, is directed towards that. The reasons were there for all to see in Trafalgar Square on 13 September last year.

It matters. It mattered 52 years ago as well. Perhaps more to some. As the Orsova was about to depart, a spare man in a pin-stripe suit was seen talking to one of England's youngest players, Colin Cowdrey. Douglas Jardine, captain of the 1932-33 Bodyline team, was overheard saying: "When you get to Ceylon, Cowdrey, have a hit and get your eye in. Then when you get to Australia, just remember one thing. Hate the bastards."

England's Diary: From Jaipur to Barbados, via all points Australia

ICC Champions Trophy

15 Oct: India, Jaipur. 21 Oct: Australia, Jaipur. 28 Oct: Qualifier 2, Ahmedabad. 1-2 Nov: Semi-finals. 5 Nov: Final, Mumbai.

Tour to Australia

10 Nov: PM'sXI, Canberra. 12-14 Nov: New South Wales, Sydney. 17-19 Nov: South Australia, Adelaide. 23-27 Nov: FIRST TEST, Brisbane. 1-5 Dec: SECOND TEST, Adelaide. 9-10 Dec: Western Australia, Perth. 14-18 Dec: THIRD TEST, Perth. 26-30 Dec: FOURTH TEST, Melbourne. 2-6 Jan: FIFTH TEST, Sydney. 9 Jan: Twenty20 international, Sydney. 12 Jan: 1st one-day international, Melbourne. 16 Jan: 2nd ODI, Hobart. 19 Jan: 3rd ODI, Brisbane. 23 Jan: 4th ODI, Adelaide. 26 Jan: 5th ODI, Adelaide. 30 Jan: 6th ODI, Perth. 2 Feb: 7th ODI, Sydney. 6 Feb: 8th ODI, Brisbane. 9 Feb: 1st final, Melbourne. 11 Feb: 2nd final, Sydney. 13 Feb: 3rd final, Adelaide.

World Cup 2007

16 Mar: New Zealand. 18 Mar: Canada. 24 Mar: Kenya (all in St Lucia). 27 Mar-21 April: Super Eights. 24-25 April: Semi-finals. 28 April: Final, Barbados.