Hungry England pursue lasting greatness
England have been the world's No. 1 Test side for scarcely a week, and already there's a feeling that this side ought to be capable of ruling the roost for the next decade or more, much as West Indies did in the 1980s and Australia in the 2000s. In part, such a fanciful projection can be dismissed as the natural reaction of England's wildly over-active media, but only up to a point.
The fact is, anyone who has witnessed England train, perform and even celebrate in the past 18 months will recognise the hallmarks of a squad that has found the courage to pursue lasting greatness, while at the same time developing the confidence to treat the extraordinary as commonplace.
"The basis of our success over the last couple of years is centred around a very strong work ethic, playing for each another and putting the team before the individual," said England's captain, Andrew Strauss. "It's about trying to improve yourself individually on a day-to-day basis, and now is very much a time to keep that improvement going. It's not a time to take the foot off the gas and be satisfied with ourselves. We're going to be judged by higher standards now as a result of getting to No.1, and it's going to be harder and harder to stay there."
The speed of England's ascent to the summit has been dizzying, but to judge from the stats alone, there can be no quibbling with their current status, even if success on the subcontinent is a goal that remains to be achieved. Since Andy Flower came on board as England's full-time coach in the spring of 2009, England have won 19 of their 30 Tests, and 11 of those by an innings. As a point of comparison, England in the whole of the 1980s - a decade that included three celebrated Ashes wins - won 20 out of 104. Success begets success, as the great teams of the past made it their business to demonstrate match-in, match-out.
It may well be too early to suppose that England are on the verge of doing likewise, but it can certainly be said that, with an average age of 28, and upwards of 15 players worthy of a place in the first XI, they have a squad with the depth to deal with the unexpected, and the time to build on the clear foundations they have laid. "The point of our set-up is to nudge people in the right direction so that they don't become too comfortable," added Strauss.
Perhaps most crucially, however, England have in Flower and Strauss a pair of leaders who are not ready or willing to let their charges feel satisfied with anything they've achieved to date. Last week at Edgbaston, England surpassed themselves in inflicting the third-heaviest defeat in India's Test history, and now they stand just five days away from completing a remarkable 4-0 whitewash over a side that came into this series as the top-ranked team in the game. Certainly, the intensity of England's preparations were at stark odds with the haphazard nature of India's practice, which - in a throwback to England's own whitewash days in the Caribbean in 1985-86 - was declared "optional" on Tuesday morning.
That's not to say there won't have been a method to that apparent madness from India's management - sometimes, when everything that can go wrong is going wrong, a break from the grind is the ideal solution, as Pakistan demonstrated back in 2001, when their improbable victory at Old Trafford came on the back of a day out at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. However, as England's insatiable batting coach, Graham Gooch, was fond of declaring during his playing days: "If you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail."
At times during their own run of world domination, the only vulnerability that Australia ever displayed was their so-called "dead-rubber syndrome" - their peculiar tendency to drop their guard in the final Test of an otherwise crushing campaign. Of England's seven victories over the Aussies between 1993 and 2003, no fewer than six came once the Ashes were beyond salvation - including two at The Oval in 1993 and 1997.
The introduction of the world rankings has made something of a difference in that respect, because there are always points up for grabs even when a series has been done and dusted. However, as England showed at Sydney back in January, when they crushed Australia by an innings and 83 runs in their own dead-rubber contest in the fifth Test, it is their own desire for self-betterment that is their primary source of motivation.
Partly that comes as a consequence of the vast range of experiences that have gone into building this England team. Key players such as Strauss, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell were all a part of the side that failed to build on its epic Ashes success in 2005; those same players plus James Anderson and Alastair Cook know how it feels to be on the receiving end of a marquee series whitewash. The vast majority of the current team were there in Jamaica in February 2009 when West Indies routed them for 51, and then there's the memory of their last defeat against India, when Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar chased a remarkable 387 in Chennai.
"It was bitterly disappointing to lose in those circumstances," Strauss recalled, "because we played a lot of good cricket in that Test and got in a position to win it. But it makes you realise that, certainly away from home, registering Test match victories is very hard and you have to play well for the entire match if you want to do that. It was a timely reminder, and that, followed by the Windies tour, was the start of us regenerating as a side, and improving."
That improvement is an ongoing project, and as Graeme Swann joked on Tuesday, he wouldn't want to be in the same room as Flower in the event that England did let this final fixture slip through their grasp. "He's a hard man to get a smile out of, I'll give you that, but the most important thing with him is he's driving us," said Strauss. "He'll be the last person ever to be satisfied with what we've achieved and he'll be the first person to be disappointed if we did take our foot off the pedal."
On a personal note, this will be Strauss's final England appearance of the year, thanks to a quirk of the calendar that has delayed the winter Test series against Pakistan and Sri Lanka until the New Year. While he denied that it would be an odd feeling to have quite such a long time on the sidelines, it is probably no bad thing that even an England captain with a record of 20 wins in 38 Tests still goes into the game with a point to prove.
"The most important thing is having won last week, I wasn't sat on my sofa thinking 'that's it for me, I've achieved what I wanted to achieve'," said Strauss. "I feel very privileged to be part of this side at the moment and I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to try and drive us forward as well.
"There's so many challenges ahead for us as a side. There's the subcontinent this winter, there's South Africa coming over, and then India in the winter after that followed by the World Test Championship. The challenges never cease from now on. It's important not to look too far ahead because we don't know what's around the corner, but for the time being I'm very motivated to continue in our improvement."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo