The year ahead: Hectic schedule ends with Ashes challenge

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The Independent Online

England's cricketers will have been well advised to savour every relaxing moment of their Christmas-New Year break. By this time next year, a week or two off may feel like something they can only dream about.

England's cricketers will have been well advised to savour every relaxing moment of their Christmas-New Year break. By this time next year, a week or two off may feel like something they can only dream about.

By the end of 2002, England will have been required to field a team for up to 22 one-day internationals and 15 Test matches – not to mention the ICC Knock-out tournament scheduled for Sharjah in the autumn – with an Ashes tour still to complete and the World Cup in South Africa looming in February 2003.

Eleven of those one-dayers will have been played by the end of February 2002 thanks to back-to-back series in India and New Zealand, which will precede three Tests against the Kiwis in March and early April. Then comes a summer programme, starting on 16 May, that comprises three Tests against Sri Lanka and four against India, with the triangular NatWest series in-between.

After what happened to last summer's optimistic forecasts, the prospect of facing Australia again as early as 7 November, when the first Test in Brisbane begins, may fill some England followers with dread, but for a depleted squad to have lost the recent series in India only 1-0 suggests things may not be so bad after all.

Andrew Flintoff, Matthew Hoggard and James Foster give cause for fresh hope and there are others, such as the Warwickshire batsman Ian Bell, who may brighten the picture further in the months ahead.

Prediction: After a happy summer at home, England to leave for Australia again believing they can bring back the Ashes.

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