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Rob Key column: The Ashes may be gone, but there is still a chance for England heroes to emerge

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The Ashes are gone and the recriminations are in full flow. I have plenty of thoughts about structural changes that would give England a better chance in Test cricket, but you will have to wait to read them. The eve of the Sydney Test is not the moment to share them.

I know this from my own experience of the 2002-03 tour. We were in a world of trouble. We lost the series in 11 days, then were well beaten at Melbourne. But we had lost everything else, too.

The tour started with a defeat against an ACB Chairman’s XI including David Hookes, by then 47, and Wayne Clark, who was 49 and had coached Yorkshire to the County Championship title the year before. We had lost games to New South Wales, Australia A, the Prime Minister’s XI — you name a team, we lost to them.

So we turned up at Sydney with nothing more to lose. The game is best remembered for Steve Waugh’s iconic century – completed by cutting the final ball of day two past me at point – in his final Test match, with the Prime Minister watching on, and a quite incredible din from the crowd.

In the first innings, Mark Butcher made a hundred at the end of a tour on which he’d struggled. This knock – just like Butch’s unbelievable century at Headingley in 2001 – was a reminder that it only takes a few hours to change the course of your career, even in a dead rubber. You can go from feeling useless, barely knowing which end of the bat to hold, to playing an innings that will remain with you for the rest of your life.

In the second innings, Michael Vaughan scored his third ton of a series that ultimately shaped him heading toward the 2005 Ashes. We won because those players — and Andy Caddick, who took a seven-for — stood up. And there is no reason England can’t this time.

We were a similar squad to this one, with guys like Nasser Hussain and Alec Stewart knowing it was their last shot at winning the Ashes in Australia, and others like me, Vaughan and Steve Harmison having the time of our young lives.

England’s youngsters won’t all be defined by their struggles on this tour. It is how they respond. They need their struggles. It’s a bit like parenting. If you tell your kids they are great and they never have hard times, will they be resilient enough for the real world? Can the tough times on this tour make you?

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

So many great sportspeople have had their share of adversity, where people thought they were rubbish. They then used it to become great. Waugh took 27 Tests to make a century, while in this fixture 11 years ago, Steve Smith looked like a clubbie playing for his country. Both are now all-time greats.

There are players for whom this is a huge game. Jos Buttler has had a tough tour, but I was so pleased to hear him say he wanted to remain a Test player when it’s done. At a time when so many players — like Quinton de Kock last week — are looking to white-ball cricket, Jos is keen to carry on. Perform well in these two Tests, and he could be a central part of England’s rebuild. Struggle, and his future might be out of his hands.

Every English player grows up dreaming of winning the Ashes, not the World Cup or anything else. This series might be gone, but there is still time to do something that will not be forgotten.

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