Confident England have never had it so good
Under cloudless skies and with their expectation levels at rock-bottom, India somehow opened the second day at The Oval with their best hour of cricket in approximately 21 sessions - dating back to Stuart Broad's seminal spell on the second day at Nottingham. By the end of it, however, they'd been condemned to another unquantifiable nadir, as England's punishing discipline and gargantuan appetite for runs made a mockery of that Test ranking that has long since been relinquished.
If India cannot pull out of their tailspin and claw something back from this game, they will have slipped to No. 3 in the world, with the prospect of facing the newly chastened Australians in the winter - who, if today's far-reaching Argus Report is anything to go by, have at least licked their Ashes wounds and set about the healing process with clean bandages. Whether England can sustain their current intensity will be a question for future Tests on different continents - and on this showing why shouldn't they? - but in the past eight months, the humiliation they have heaped on their two highest-profile opponents has been devastating.
It can now be said, without equivocation, that English cricket has never had it so good, for the stats they've amassed are simply incapable of lying. Last week at Edgbaston, Alastair Cook made a career-best 294 as England passed 700 for the first time in 73 years; today at The Oval, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell battered their way to an English third-wicket record stand of 350, the 14th triple-century stand in England's 915 Tests, and yet their third in the space of 13.
And what of tomorrow, when Bell will resume on 181 not out, with a chance of posting England's seventh double-century in the past 15 months, and beyond that, potentially something even more extraordinary? With seven wickets in hand and, tellingly, a nightwatchman at the crease, it's safe to assume that a declaration flurry is a long way off yet. "Bat once, bat deep" has been the motto all summer long, and there's precisely no reason to tinker with that formula with nine sessions remaining.
Pietersen was a self-satisfied man at the close, and with every imaginable reason. The angst that surrounded his long and laborious return to form has been forgotten, now that he's amassed three of his four highest scores in the space of 15 knocks. "I don't think we're surprising ourselves," he said, "because if you look how hard this team has worked in the last two years, the wheel has to turn and we're very lucky to all be dovetailing. If someone misses out, someone else gets the runs and that's what good teams do."
The one troubling performance of England's day was a plod of an innings from their only misfiring batsman, Andrew Strauss, who nudged two runs in an hour before swiping a drive to the keeper. However, as any Indian who is currently longing for the days of Sanjay Bangar will testify, there are several ways to build towards a Test victory. By the time Strauss departed with the morning drinks break looming, that new ball was 38 overs old, and ripe for a hammering from two batsmen who love nothing better than raising the tempo of an innings.
"One of the principles our team lives by is using up as much of the new ball as possible," said Pietersen. "We aim to get opposition bowlers into their third, fourth and fifth spells, because then we know we will end up with some opportunities for big scores." He didn't actively name-check Strauss in his explanation, but the inference was clear enough. This is a team with a plan, and right now it's all coming together.
Stopping England scoring runs at the moment is like catching custard in a sieve. It can happen occasionally, but eventually it all floods through, and today it was the turn of the two most aesthetically pleasing players in the team to scoop their fingers into the bowl. Whereas Cook's incredible 294 at Edgbaston prompted Shane Warne to tweet he'd never seen anything so dull, no such accusations could be flung in Bell and Pietersen's direction, as they thrilled a sun-soaked crowd with the purity of their performance.
With their contrasting heights and complementary approaches, Bell and Pietersen simply love batting together. That much was apparent way back in Faisalabad in 2005, when both men combined to score their second Test hundreds, but in the past five alliances - 116, 71, 110, 162 and now 350 - their returns have gone through the roof. At Adelaide during the Ashes, Bell's quick feet provided the perfect foil for a newly carefree KP, as Australia were butchered past the 600 mark; at Southampton in June, they provided a rain-dampened fixture with one of the sprightly stands of the summer.
In the past it could be said that Bell tended to shadow his more demonstrative partner, not least during their 286-run stand at Lord's in 2008, when Bell slipped along to his highest Test score of 199 while South Africa were pre-occupied with the performance of their former countryman. Since the injury to Jonathan Trott, however, Bell has had no place to hide at No. 3, and crucially, nor has he sought to for an instant. He outgrew No. 6 with incredible speed during the Ashes, and now, with two 150-plus scores in his last three innings at first drop, he's letting it be known that No. 5 is beneath him as well.
"Belly's been magnificent over the last 12-18 months," said Pietersen. "He's grown as a person, he's matured so much, and I love the fact he's scoring his runs so fluently. He's so pleasing on the eye when he's batting, and it's just nice that he's gone to his 16th Test hundred. The hard work he's put in since [being dropped on] the Windies tour is paying dividends.
"We have contrasting styles," he added. "I'm taller, he's shorter, and I batted pretty successfully with Paul Collingwood in the same way. Balls that he drove were really full balls for me, balls that I drove were nice punchy balls for Colly. It's a pretty similar story, and long may it continue."
England's current onslaught is relentless. In their last 20 Tests, dating back to the tour of Bangladesh in March 2010, they have amassed 33 hundreds - 21 of which have either been undefeated or in excess of 147 - and on only two occasions, at Edgbaston against Pakistan and during Mitchell Johnson's Test at Perth, have they failed to reach three figures. India, by contrast, have yet to amass a team total in excess of 288 in six attempts on this tour.
"There's lots of swing, lots of seam, and it's going to spin miles tomorrow," said Pietersen. "In the first couple of sessions it's going to be flat, and then when we bowl it's going to be all over the shop." He said it with a smile, but the scary thing is he almost certainly believed it. The confidence of this outfit knows no bounds right now.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo