Unyielding England secure perfect finish
Perhaps the threat of humiliation had shaken them out of their torpor, or perhaps the life in The Oval surface had been sucked away over the course of five days, but whatever the reason, India's fighting qualities were as visible in the last two days of the series as they had been at any stage of the contest. For as long as Sachin Tendulkar and the improbably fluent Amit Mishra were in harness, a draw was not only on the cards, but those cards were lying face up on the table, plain for all to see.
And yet, despite the "frustration" that Andrew Strauss admitted had begun to set in for England's bowlers, India's resistance proved futile in the end. If England are not yet as good as their No. 1 ranking would imply - and a winter in the subcontinent will go a long way to determining that issue - then the team's capacity to raise their game from a standing start bears many of the necessary ingredients for greatness.
Just as at Trent Bridge, when Stuart Broad's hat-trick transformed the agenda of the summer, a promising Indian innings was concluded in a car-wreck of cheap dismissals. From 262 for 3 - and the very real prospect of salvation - they crashed to 283 all out in little more than an hour, so that in the final analysis of the series they still were not able to post a single total in excess of 300. "A gradual erosion of their confidence and a gradual increase of our confidence has been the difference between the sides," Strauss said at the close.
Steve Waugh christened this "mental disintegration", and though that term went on to become synonymous with sledging, England's triumph in this series has reawakened the art in its truest sense. Certainly, they are not the quietest outfit in the field: James Anderson is a renowned gobshite when he's in the zone, Graeme Swann was chuntering to everyone within earshot, umpires included, during England's wicketless morning session, while the concussed Gautam Gambhir was likened to Mel Gibson's "Braveheart" by the close catchers who greeted his belated arrival.
But of far more significance than any verbal baiting is the manner in which England fried their opponents' resolve through the unyielding diligence of their cricket. Their batsmen took their starts and made them into big finishes, trusting in the fact that long hard days of yakka would wear the Indian bowlers down and create opportunities for truly vast scores.
Then, in turn, those same players who'd been done to a turn in the field, would be hounded relentlessly when their own turn came to bat, knowing that, in the "you miss, I hit" logic of Brian Statham, their first mistake would be their last. England's attack is not the most outrageously talented of all time, nor the quickest, nor the nastiest. But it is as unrelenting as a terrier on a postman's trouser-leg, and it's never too long before the rips in the fabric start showing.
"If you can get to a stage halfway through the Test match where one side is really struggling just to salvage a draw, then often you can go ahead and win very comfortably," Strauss said. "But what did exceed expectations was how well our individuals played - the number of our batsmen who got big scores, and the number of bowlers who stuck their hands up at different times. It was very impressive, and a good springboard for further success."
The knowledge of the damage that they were able to inflict became self-perpetuating, and in a pleasing portent of the job that lies ahead in the winter, the man who eventually cracked India's last vestiges of resolve was none other than the offspinner Swann. On the only pitch that suited him all series, his nine wickets in the match were more than double his previous tally of four, and served as a reminder that, even within the confines of a four-man attack, England possess bowlers for all occasions.
"It was fantastic to see Swann coming through with his wickets, but also the way the seamers backed him up. It was another very professional performance," Strauss said. "The wickets have been more responsive to seam bowling so this was the first one that helped him out, but he had to toil pretty hard; certainly when the ball got softer and older it was hard work for him as well."
The toil to which England were subjected was, in part, a consequence of their own success. Whereas India's bowlers had been taken into their third, fourth and fifth spells purely through the relentlessness of England's batting, the loss of nearly a whole day's play to the weather obliged Strauss to enforce the follow-on - an increasingly anachronistic option in the quicker modern game, and one that Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman memorably put out of fashion in Kolkata a decade ago.
All things being equal, Strauss would undoubtedly have preferred a quick second-innings thrash to allow his bowlers a break, before setting India a target of 550-odd in four-and-a-half sessions. Instead, a team that already had 94 overs in its legs was pushed back out for what proved to be 91 more. It's a tribute to their superior levels of fitness, and also their desire to wrap up the series as they had started it, that they stormed through in the closing stages, before India could even set them a token run-chase.
"I think there's quite a lot of fatigue actually, it's been a long four Test matches," Strauss said. "I think we've had to put a lot into it and certainly in this game; arriving here having won the series already, it was a slightly different test for us as a side. There is that temptation to take your foot off the gas a little bit, but in actual fact we probably had to work harder for this one than any of the others, because we had to spend so long in the field."
The race for the Mace has been run, and England's stated ambition has been achieved, but there's no evidence whatsoever that they intend to let up their intensity. Strauss himself will not play for England again until they land in the UAE in the New Year, but after a month of county duty with Middlesex and a well-deserved break from the grind, he'll be back on the job soon enough, planning his strategies with Andy Flower, and aiming to take a very good team towards greatness.
"Coming into this game 3-0 up, I think we were very motivated by the idea of making it 4-0," he said. "We were confident, we felt we had the ability to win this final game, but we had to dig deep again. And that's what I'm most proud about; the guys were prepared to do that even when they didn't really have to. I think that bodes well for the future.
"Rightly, I think we should celebrate the fact that we've had a fantastic Test match summer, but it's the nature of international cricket that you're always looking forward to the next challenge. The greatest pitfall is that feeling that you've done it all, therefore you're not willing to put in the hard work. But I'd be very disappointed if we fell into that trap, it's not what we're about as a unit. If there are any signs of it, it's important to nip it in the bud."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo