LONDON // All was quiet at the Grange Hotel in Tower Hill first thing yesterday morning. Andrew Strauss's Ashes-winning team were in bed, or in the bar; the media stood around basically interviewing one another. Behind closed doors, the celebration was undoubtedly more raucous. Andrew Flintoff was probably in a position to face his knee operation yesterday without an anaesthetic. But the subdued note struck was probably no bad thing, for England remain a modest team with much to be modest about - something, to his credit, that Strauss seems to grasp.
"When we were bad, we were very bad," acknowledged Strauss in victory. "When we were good, we were good enough." The Saatchis would have admired such crisp phrase-making. England were minutes and inches from going one-nil behind at Cardiff, and stuffed so completely at Headingley that it almost counted as two defeats. In three sessions, bowling talent met ideal conditions: at Lord's, England took six for 69; at Edgbaston seven for 77; at the Oval eight for 72. Otherwise, only Flintoff, on the last morning at Lord's, rose above the circumstances, and the performance left him spent for the rest of the summer.
England's top-order, meanwhile, looked counterfeit without its Kevin Pietersen watermark. Alastair Cook, Ian Bell, Paul Collingwood and Ravi Bopara all averaged less than 30. Perhaps the most intriguing is Bell. He averages 40 while nonetheless remaining largely devoid of character or authority. It is a cliche to say that Bell is hugely skilled while lacking temperament. But executing a cover drive is not a skill - it is a proficiency. Innings are not static exercises in stroke production; they need to be organised. Five years and nearly 50 Tests into his career, Bell remains a novice, a curiously passive batsman, with strokes to make a purist swoon, but so grooved in his own game as to seemingly forget the game he is playing.
Fortunately, the captain himself is in his batting prime, game refined and rationalised, limits understood and explored, his 474 runs securing him the Compton-Miller Award previously won by Flintoff and Ricky Ponting. Like one of Napoleon's lucky marshals, too, he enjoyed good fortune, with the toss, with the umpires, with the pitches. Above all, he radiates a priceless sang froid in action. To watch him on the second evening, hemmed in by close fielders but enjoying the contest enough to smile, was to see a man in harmony with his task. His task now is clear: to do rather better as a custodian of the Ashes than the England of four years ago.
At the time, it soon became clear that England had geared themselves to beating Australia and errrr .that is it. After going on their bus-riding bender, they learned there was a little more to cricket than a single series. Never quite absorbing their new discovery, they were duly humiliated in Australia. "Last time we had not won the Ashes for 18 years so it was a step into the unknown," said Strauss. "To a few of us this time it is familiar. We have to be conscious that this is a stepping stone, not the end."
The next stepping stone is South Africa this winter. No wonder nobody's getting carried away. @Email:email@example.com