England ready for the top - Strauss
Andrew Strauss believes England are ready to fulfil the ambition laid out at the start of his captaincy tenure in 2009, and displace India as the No. 1 Test team in the world. A victory by two clear Tests in the forthcoming four-match series would be enough to lift England to the top of the ICC rankings, and on the eve of the series opener at Lord's, Strauss called on his players to produce "something special" in their final push towards the summit.
Strauss has been in this situation before with England, under the captaincy of Michael Vaughan. In the autumn of 2005, with six series wins in a row and the Australians recently scalped on home soil, England believed they were ready to usher in a new era. Instead they suffered a humbling 2-0 defeat at the hands of Shoaib Akhtar and Pakistan, and as injuries and illness tore at the fabric of their squad, they quickly melted back among the also-rans.
If any lesson could be taken from England's demise on that occasion, it is that the pursuit of sporting excellence is a relentless and unforgiving occupation. The traits of consistency, longevity and unwavering class - best epitomised on an individual level by the ageless Sachin Tendulkar - allow for no let-up whatsoever. It is that fact that makes the forthcoming England-India series so tantalising. One side or the other is going to have to give ground at some stage of the contest. And Strauss is adamant it will not be his men.
"We are going to go out and be determined to win every match in this series and if we get in a winning position it's important we're ruthless and make that count," said Strauss. "We have a great opportunity to play some really good cricket and hopefully pull off something special in the next five weeks. India are a very, very good cricket side, they have been for a while now, and if you want to be the best in the world you have to beat sides like India."
Hindsight now makes it clear that England were not ready for the No. 1 status back in 2005. The undoubted excellence of their first XI was not matched by the reserves who tried and failed to cover for men such as Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones, Marcus Trescothick and Vaughan himself, while the tailing-off of Steve Harmison's form left England bereft of a genuine spearhead until James Anderson came of age in 2008. These days, however, their broader squad mentality allows much more flexibility in times of need - as demonstrated in the recent Ashes, when Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan replaced Stuart Broad and Steven Finn respectively, with instant impact.
For that reason, among others, Strauss is confident that England's time at the top has finally arrived. "I do, absolutely," he said. "I still think there are areas we can improve on so in that sense we aren't the finished article, but to be No. 1 is relative to what other sides are doing. Our cricket over the last two years, I don't think there's been a side that has been better than us.
"We've won seven out of eight series and the other [in South Africa] has been drawn, but this is a new challenge for us and our ultimate goal in the long term is not just to be the side who is No. 1 in rankings, but the side everyone agrees is the best side in the world. That's still a long-term goal, regardless of whether we win or lose this series."
Despite India's ranking, England expect to win because this is their home turf, and with overcast skies predicted for the coming week, the ball at Lord's ought to move through the air and make life pretty tricky for the visiting batsmen. "We have home advantage, which I think counts for a lot, and I think we have to use that wisely," said Strauss.
Nevertheless, when England lost their six-year unbeaten home record back in 2007, it was India who snatched it from them courtesy of a brilliantly executed victory at Trent Bridge, and as Strauss acknowledged, their oft-repeated fallibility outside of Asia is very much a thing of the past.
"You don't become the No. 1 side without being able to play away from home as well and that's probably the greatest improvement they've made," he said. "They've been far more consistent away from home and have a lot of experienced batsmen who have played all over the world. We understand the extent of the challenge, it won't be easy, but I think in our home conditions we back ourselves to beat anyone."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo