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England's ascent to the top spot in the Test rankings has been swift, but Andrew Strauss's men know the descent from the summit can be quick and humiliating if standards are allowed to waver
August 13, 2011
England's coronation as the world's best Test team was accompanied by a pageantry that was atypical at best. As the inevitability of victory took its hold on the ever-lively Eric Hollies Stand, seven Mr Blobbys went skipping down the aisle, shortly before a troupe of thirty monkeys pursued an overgrown banana in a skit that might have been devised for Benny Hill.
Out in the middle, India's batsmen shared in the sense of the absurd, shedding six wickets before lunch to crush any prospect of a rearguard. But all throughout the process, England themselves remained deadly serious, as they closed in on a goal that has focussed the squad's mentality for the best part of two years.
In the end, the scenes were not dissimilar to those at the end of the Ashes, with 11 jubilant cricketers forming a bundle at the point where the decisive wicket had fallen, while two crestfallen batsmen slunk out of the picture stage-right, stunned by the magnitude of the defeat they'd just endured. But aside from confirming what we all already knew, that the Pataudi Trophy was returning to English hands for the first time since 1996, there was nothing especially remarkable about the moment itself. When victory becomes commonplace, as it truly has done for this team, you know you have got a special outfit on your hands.
"It's different," Andrew Strauss admitted, when asked to put into words what it means to be the best. "With an Ashes series there's so much emotion and rivalry between the countries, but this series is very much about measuring ourselves against the best in the world, and hopefully having the opportunity to overtake them. We're very proud of the way we've performed in the last three games - we've been very close to our best, so we are very satisfied with what we've achieved and delighted to have gone to No. 1 ourselves."
There's only so much that can be read into the achievement, however. As India have just demonstrated in a spectacular collapse of resolve, the descent from the summit can be quick and humiliating if you allow your standards to waver. With away series against Pakistan and Sri Lanka looming early next year, followed by a tasty home tussle against the impressive South Africa, England's credentials will soon be tested in no uncertain terms. "It can go away as quickly as it arrives," Strauss said. "You've got to keep looking forward, that's the nature of international sport."
Nevertheless, the speed of England's march to the summit of the world game has been remarkable, especially when you consider what a shambles they had been as recently as the spring of 2009. When Strauss and Andy Flower were pitched together as captain and coach in the wake of the Pietersen-Moores fiasco, their first match in charge resulted in the 51-all-out collapse at Sabina Park, a contest so calamitous it couldn't help but harden the resolve of a buffeted squad. Ian Bell was sent away to box on the beaches and toughen up his act; Steve Harmison and, in phases, Andrew Flintoff were stripped of their influence within a divided dressing-room. On a series of flat decks, the series proved to be unsalvageable, but the only way from that nadir has been up.
From the moment Flower was appointed England's full-time coach, ahead of the return series against West Indies in May 2009, England have won 19 of their 30 Tests and lost just four. More than that, they have won nine of those games by an innings, four by eight wickets or more, and the remainder by an average of 227 runs. The expectation of victory has propelled the side to ever greater heights in the interim, and given them the knowhow to wriggle out of tight corners - whether they are scorelines of 102 for 7 or 124 for 8, such as England overturned against Pakistan at Lord's and India at Nottingham, or outright defeats such as those suffered in the Ashes at Headingley and Perth.
"We've not had everything our own way in this series," Strauss said. "We've dominated this Test in particular, but there were times in the first two when we were behind. But as often happens, confidence becomes a factor in the second half of a series, and we've become more confident as we've gone on, and used that in our favour. In your own conditions you've got to back yourself to beat anyone, especially if you want to be the best in the world. We've achieved that through a lot of guys standing up and delivering when it matters."
How England develop from this point in time depends entirely on the resolve they retain, now that they have achieved that stated aim to reach the top. The omens on that front are promising. Apart from anything else, the squad includes a knot of key players - Strauss, Pietersen, Bell, and to a lesser extent James Anderson - who were in the thick of the action on the last occasion that England looked set to establish a new world order, back in 2004-05. The speed with which that era crumbled was shocking, and yet instructive, for back then beating the world No. 1 Australia was seen as an end in itself rather than a step on a longer journey.
This time around, there are more wide-ranging forces at work. Apart from anything else, England's long-term challenge is sure to be sustained by the depth and quality of its seam-bowling ranks. In any other era, Chris Tremlett's back injury could have scuttled their prospects as surely as Zaheer Khan's absence sank India's. However, he has not been missed for one millisecond, given the stunning contribution of his replacement, Tim Bresnan, while Steven Finn, Graham Onions and Ajmal Shahzad are among the names all pressing for future involvement.
Everything that England has achieved in the past two years, both here against India and in Australia last winter, has stemmed from the totality of their bowling attack - a unit so incisive that England currently hold a 757-run advantage in the course of the three Tests to date. "I think often you play as well as you are allowed," Strauss said. "One thing they do well is complement each other and hunt as a group. If there are any weaknesses there, they back themselves to exploit them."
It's too early to confirm the suspicion that England are the new sheriffs in the Test town - South Africa, for starters, will have something to say about that. But just as Australia's 1994-95 tour of the Caribbean confirmed that their rise had coincided with the decline of the great West Indies era, so the events of the past nine months - the bearding of the Aussies and the crushing of the Indians - suggests that a similar handover is on the cards.
If that is indeed the case, then Strauss is ready to defend his team's new-found status. "I don't think this is an end in itself," he said. "Just bear in mind there are a number of other teams anxious to have this mantle to be the No. 1 side. So I think it's arrogant for us to just waltz our way and assume everything's going to be hunky-dory all the time. We have to get our competitive juices flowing in any series we play, because if your goal is to play good cricket, the rankings will look after themselves."
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