State of the Nation: Cricket

RARELY can an England cricket team have gone into a new year with greater confidence or cause for optimism.

The achievement of Andrew Strauss and his players in retaining the Ashes has banished ghosts from the past and promised much for the future.

Although much gloss would be taken off England's first Ashes victory Down Under for 24 years should they lose the final Test in Sydney, which would see Australia level the series, the feel-good factor has returned to English cricket.

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Strauss and his players go into 2011 content not simply to rest on their laurels but hell-bent on achieving their oft-stated aim to become world No 1.

How much England's feat of retaining the urn has been determined by their own steady improvement under Strauss and head coach Andy Flower or by Australia's alarming regression will only become clear in the months and years ahead.

But England have clearly developed in all departments, with resident South Africans Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen providing a quality No 3/No 4 axis to complement the burgeoning Alastair Cook and Ian Bell, not to mention the assured strokeplay of Strauss himself.

James Anderson is up there with the best pace bowlers in the world, while Chris Tremlett and Yorkshire's Tim Bresnan have provided impressive – and unexpected – strength in depth.

Although Graeme Swann has had a quiet series by his standards, he remains the world's best spinner and a match-winner for most conditions.

However, as well as England have performed on the current tour, Australia are no longer the yardstick by which a great team must be judged.

Len Hutton's famous remark that you need to be 25 per cent better than Australia to beat them in their own backyard most certainly applied as recently as four years ago, but, as the last few weeks have shown, does not apply now.

Bresnan and Yorkshire colleague Ajmal Shahzad would both walk into the current Australia side – as would batsman Eoin Morgan, another waiting in the wings.

But although it is the oldest clich in the book that you can only beat the opposition in front of you, so it is true that you cannot gauge England's strength against an Australian team whose status as the world's fourth-best is looking a generous miscalculation.

In 2011, England face two key challenges as they continue their odyssey under Strauss and Flower.

In Test cricket, they entertain world No 1 India in a four-match series during the second half of the English summer, and next month they embark on their quest to win the 50-over World Cup.

After lifting the World Twenty20 trophy last year, England will fancy their chances of completing a cup double that would represent some achievement given their current status as the fifth-best ODI side.

But the real test will come in the Test arena against an India team who will take some stopping.

Victory against Mahendra Singh Dhoni's side would represent a significant step in the right direction but would not, in

the eyes of most judges, be sufficient to confirm England as world No 1.

Only by triumphing in India – the modern equivalent of winning in Australia – or by beating world No 2 South Africa on their own patch could England really claim the global domination they crave.

However, with India ageing, South Africa not possessing England's strength in depth and Strauss's men still with time on their side, the next few years could be a golden time for English cricket.

There is certainly no longer any stand-out team – a la the Australia side of Warne and McGrath.

The coming year will not provide the ultimate answer as to how England are progressing but will offer some serious pointers.

Sri Lanka will be no pushovers when they contest a three-Test series in the first part of the English summer, although no side with serious aspirations of conquering the globe would be satisfied with anything less than a comfortable victory against the world's fifth-ranked side.

Strauss's men should have too much quality for Sri Lanka in English conditions when they meet in Tests at Cardiff, Lord's and, heaven forfend, the Rose Bowl.

The outcome of the India series, however, looks difficult to predict.

As fence-sitting is an offence punishable by a P45 in the modern media, I will go for a 2-1 England win.

Prior to the impending World Cup, there is the small matter of two Twenty20 internationals and seven one-day internationals against Australia, which will be good preparation for the global tournament but yet another example of an over-crowded fixture list.

Between now and October – and discounting the World Cup knockout stages – England are scheduled to play no fewer than 24 one-day internationals.

I do not know about you, but I reckon that is just a tad excessive.