England's rise to No. 1 September 14, 2011

'England have a responsibility to win'

In 2005 Andrew Flintoff and his band of reverse-swinging hitmen outgunned the great Australian team in the most memorable cricketing summer of a generation. Back then Flintoff provided inspiration, these days it's all about perspiration

Of all the characteristics to propel a team to No.1, earnest endeavour wouldn't often be top of the list. Yet that is exactly what has worked for this current England side. Rather than the magic that makes most top teams magnetic, England possess more earthly qualities - as exemplified by Jonathan Trott and Alastair Cook, the two batsmen who scooped the top prizes at the ICC Awards in London on Monday night.

It is a far cry from the last time England had a team challenging for the top spot. In 2005 Andrew Flintoff and his band of reverse-swinging hitmen out-gunned the great Australian team in the most memorable cricketing summer of a generation. Back then Flintoff provided inspiration, these days it's all about perspiration. However, he feels the difference between the teams comes from England's current standing in the game.

"In 2005 we weren't the best team in the world, Australia were," Flintoff told ESPNcricinfo. "We could go out and play and we weren't expected really to beat them, we surprised a few. The pressures on this side are different, they're head and shoulders above everybody else. With that comes a responsibility to win."

Alongside Simon Jones, Steve Harmison, Marcus Trescothick, captain Michael Vaughan, not to mention a more carefree Kevin Pietersen, the England side in which Flintoff starred was packed with show-stopping frontmen. But after the Ashes success, the dream unravelled in a slew of injuries and complacency.

What emerged, eventually, was a squad of fastidiously prepared, cautious and professional cricketers that have made England the finest side in the world. Comparisons may be tricky but the differences between the Strauss and Vaughan vintage throws up interesting questions as England now look to maintain their No. 1 position. No player captured the joie de vivre of the Vaughan side better than Flintoff, but even just six years after that Ashes achievement, he feels his instinctive approach belongs to a different era.

"The game has got more professional, so I possibly wouldn't fit in," he said. "The shape of the cricketers have changed, the fitness, the approach to the game is different. I think I would have enjoyed playing in the 1980s more than now. If I was starting my career now I'd be a very different person and a very different player."

Flintoff was also part of the crossover period, playing seven Tests under Andrew Strauss, including four in the 2009 Ashes win. That difference between 2005 and now, in Flintoff's eyes, is epitomised by the mentality of the two captains. Preparation has been a hallmark of England's landmark series wins against Australia and India, and where Vaughan seemed more prepared to go with his hunches, Strauss leans towards caution and planning.

"Michael was more of a free spirit [than Strauss] as a captain, probably more aggressive. He'd do things slightly different with his field places. He approaches players slightly differently too, I think one of his key strengths was he knew his players inside-out. He'd treat me, for instance, differently to how he'd treat Ashley Giles or Marcus Trescothick, he knew how to get the best out of each player.

"Strauss is safer as a captain. He's more calculating. I wouldn't say he's negative, but safe. Some of his declarations, you'd have to bat about three weeks to get them!"

Though Strauss has often been criticised for being too reluctant to attack, the results he has compiled puts him in the highest echelons of England captains. His unwavering groundedness may also help England avoid the pitfalls that undid Vaughan and Flintoff's side. From the moment the No. 1 position was confirmed after the third Test win against India at Edgbaston, the England players and management were keen to drum out their mantra of preparing hard for the next challenge.

"I think we've learned from what happened in 2006," said Flintoff. "It's alright beating a side and becoming No. 1, but it's about maintaining it. In 2005 we weren't the best team in the world. Now, England are the best out there. It's all about complacency, you've got to keep pushing and keep working hard, but if you look at them that's what they're doing. I think we'll dominate Test cricket for the next five years or so."

It is the management team of Strauss, alongside head coach Andy Flower and England's squad of backroom staff, that has instilled England with the hard-working values that underpins their success. Yet Flintoff feels Peter Moores, Flower's predecessor, deserves credit for laying the groundwork.

"Flower probably pinches himself at times to get the chance to coach England, which is one of the biggest jobs in cricket. Peter Moores laid the foundations for that. He brought Flower in as his assistant pretty much from nowhere. We knew Andy played and was probably one of the world's best batsmen but as a coach he was unproven and got brought in by Peter.

"Flower obviously took over and moved the side forward but he would be the first one to admit that he can only do so much and then it's down to the players and how they work and their attitudes. At the moment, those players have it spot on."

That question over attitude is something the India coach, Duncan Fletcher, may be questioning after his side slumped to defeat after defeat this summer. Having played the best years of his England career under Fletcher as coach, Flintoff was surprised with what he saw this summer.

"I saw the way in which England prepared I watched them doing their slip catching practice. Balls were fizzing everywhere, they were catching, they were diving diving. Next to them was India and the ball spent more time on the floor than it did in their hands, and Duncan was taking that. I used to do it with Duncan and he used to go mad if you dropped a ball. So I don't know if coaching is a young man's game now."

Andrew Flintoff is a Titans of Cricket Ambassador

Sahil Dutta is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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