The road to redemption
Defeated but not disgraced was Michael Vaughan's verdict, as England's proud six-year home record was finally brought to an end. England were, by their captain's admission, the lesser side over the space of the three Tests. Their failure to convert their Lord's opportunity into a win was mitigated by two consecutive matches in which they were most definitely second-best. Had Rahul Dravid needed to gamble at The Oval with the series tied at 1-1, he would surely have done so, and most likely would have succeeded.
For Vaughan it was a bittersweet finish to a summer of personal redemption. The manner in which he fought back from the brink of career oblivion epitomised the drive and indefatigability of his captaincy, and his two centuries of the season were, in very different ways, among the most memorable of his career. But the team to which he has returned has changed beyond all recognition in his time on the sidelines, and India's victory underlines just how arduous the rebuilding process promises to be.
When Vaughan's knee buckled in Lahore in November 2005, England had racked up six series wins in a row, culminating of course in that summer's Ashes triumph. Since then, however, they've managed just two wins out of seven - the second of which, against West Indies earlier in the summer, was a desperately untaxing affair that probably did the team more harm than good. England, for instance, found no way through their one world-class opponent, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, and so they went around him instead. Against India, however, not even the weakest links were of the exploitable variety.
England scored some notable hits in the course of the series - none of India's batsmen made a century, for instance, a statistic that left Vaughan incredulous - but their best punches were absorbed by opponents whose greater experience matched their greater desire. This series mattered dearly to India - a team still smarting from their early World Cup exit and one stacked with legendary cricketers for whom time is running out to make their marks for posterity. England's spirit was willing but found wanting, for theirs was a side nearer the start of their journey than the end.
Little has been made of the absentees in the England set-up, and rightly so on two counts. Firstly, this is a new era - as epitomised by the appointment of Peter Moores as coach - and so the time for Duncan Fletcher-style excuses is passed. Secondly, when they have been available to England, the established stars have not exactly covered themselves in glory in recent months, with Steve Harmison's flaccid performances against West Indies a case in point.
But you can't put a price on experience, as India themselves will be reflecting today. England 's new-look four-man attack performed above all expectations. Ryan Sidebottom was outstanding in his consistency, James Anderson pulled killer deliveries from thin air and suffered fewer off-days than ever before, while Chris Tremlett showed he knows how to combine height, pace and accuracy. Only Monty Panesar lost ground in the reputation stakes, but then he was never going to trump his 23 wickets against West Indies.
But they were unable to land the body-jarring blows that marked England out as such a top-draw side two summers ago, and that, as much as anything, was the fault of England 's batsmen. High-class swing bowling limited the Australians to just three centuries in the 2005 Ashes (only one of which came in the first four matches), but two years on it was England's turn to be turned inside out by the moving ball. Vaughan's artistry and Kevin Pietersen's appetite meant England scored three centuries to India's one, but either side of those efforts, England's failures were glaring.
|And so, for Vaughan's new England the challenge is simple. Build yourselves back up from this humbling beginning, and attempt to emulate the achievements that have gone before. To that end, the last day at The Oval was a hugely important milestone. As Vaughan's predecessor, Nasser Hussain, would have put it, learning how not to lose is the first step to victory|
The trouble began at the top, where Andrew Strauss, who once boasted a tally of ten Test hundreds in 30 matches, has now gone 41 international innings without adding to that figure. His alliance with Alastair Cook is England's loosest since Graham Gooch and Tim Robinson were themselves turned over by India in 1986, and if Marcus Trescothick were to make himself available, Strauss would be out of the door like a shot. In Trescothick's absence, he has taken it upon himself to be England's enforcer, but Strauss has been playing outside his comfort zone for 12 months now, and looks in desperate need of a break.
The problem extended through the middle-order, where Ian Bell went missing at No. 6, a position for which he had previously shown such an affinity. And as for Matt Prior, not even a gutsy 12 not out on the last day at The Oval could mitigate his sins of the series. Over-talkative and under-mobile, his performance was symptomatic of an England team that was expected to run before they could walk. Ashley Giles' retirement during the Test just gone underlined the fact that past glories count for nothing in the non-stop world of international cricket.
And so, for Vaughan's new England the challenge is simple. Build yourselves back up from this humbling beginning, and attempt to emulate the achievements that have gone before. To that end, the last day at The Oval was a hugely important milestone. As Vaughan's predecessor, Nasser Hussain, would have put it, learning how not to lose is the first step to victory. The next step comes in Sri Lanka in November, a team as formidable on home soil as England are perceived to be. It's a daunting prospect, but one that will now be undertaken with no illusions.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo