India v England, 4th Test, Nagpur December 12, 2012

England close, but the back-slapping can wait

England are on the brink of something very special. To win a series in India, whatever the margin, would rate as high as any achievement in England's modern Test history

During England's ill-fated tour of India in 1993, Phil Tufnell famously remarked that he had "done the elephants and done the poverty; it's time to go home."

While Tufnell's comments may well have been tongue in cheek, they were long used to characterise England's attitude to tours in Asia generally. They were seen not just as a challenge in a cricketing sense, but as much a test off the pitch. They were something to be endured. England were often mentally defeated before a ball was bowled.

Those days have gone. Not only does India now offer hotels and travel options to rival any international destination, but England have realised that such an attitude was self defeating. While it would be stretching a point to suggest that England are using this tour to soak up new cultural ideas and experiences - a new Xbox game is as groundbreaking as many international sportsmen like to get - they have developed a 'no excuse' culture that will not permit negativity into the dressing room.

They have also banished any sense of hubris. England, the new England, know they are one game away from scaling a peak that has defeated many, but past experience has taught them that the time for balloons and back-slapping can wait.

They were in a similar position in South Africa at the start of 2010. One up, with one to play, they capitulated to Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel on a lively wicket in Johannesburg by an innings and had to settle for a drawn series.

Not only that, but they started 2012 with hopes of establishing a legacy as one of the great Test teams. Subsequent confrontations against a rejuvenated Pakistan and a truly formidable South Africa have provided a more realistic barometer of their current status. Whatever problems England face over the next few days in Nagpur, complacency will not be among them.

They can also draw on some positive experiences. Not only did England hold on at The Oval to win the 2005 Ashes - though apart from Kevin Pietersen the only man from that England side who can be involved here is Ian Bell, who was dismissed for a pair in that match - but they also produced a victory at The Oval in 2009 to clinch that Ashes series 2-1. Six of the England team that played that game are likely to take the field in Nagpur.

They are on the brink of something very special. To win a series in India, whatever the margin, would rate as high as any achievement in England's modern Test history. Bearing in mind the record of England sides here and bearing in mind the crushing defeat that started the series in Ahmedabad, it surely rates as high as the Ashes win in Australia of 2010-11, the Ashes of 2005, 2009 or the Pakistan and Sri Lanka victories at the turn of the century.

"It's an incredible situation we find ourselves in," England's captain, Alastair Cook said. "We always desperately wanted to win this series, and we've got an opportunity to try to do that. We've played some really good cricket to get there. We're really keen as a side to continue that.

"I said after Ahmedabad that if we could play close to our potential we have a chance of winning. We've got to continue on the same path. We know how hard we've worked over these last couple of games, and we've got to do it again.

"We're here to do a job, and that job is still on. We said at the beginning of the series we wanted to win it, and we've put ourselves in a situation where we've got a chance to do that and we're desperately keen not to let that chance go."

Cook admitted that he had been "pleasantly surprised at the character" his team had shown since Ahmedabad, but it was Graeme Swann who provided the more striking insight into the determination that now exists within the England dressing room.

"After losing that game in Ahmedabad and with our previous results in India, it would have been very easy to get in a rut," Swann said. "A rut of losing a game, travelling, losing another one and then just waiting to get home at the end of it rather than focusing on winning the next game.

"There was a lot of focus and energy put towards that this tour was not going to be like that. Whether it was from management or senior players, it was made very clear that Mumbai was a chance to level the series and anybody who didn't see it that way wasn't welcome in the dressing room. It was probably a bit different this time round how we approached the trip, we have really tried to embrace India and embrace the series and believe we can win it and I'm not sure that has always been the case. I may be wrong. I have only been on one Test tour here before, but there certainly seemed more belief from the outset on this one."

It has been easier for some to remain upbeat than others. Stuart Broad, for example, has endured a miserable tour. A heel injury in the warm-up period may have compromised his performance in the first Test while an upset stomach may have compromised his performance in the second.

He was subsequently left out for the third Test, the first time he had been dropped since England's toured India in 2008, and has looked something of a lost soul ever since. He is surely too good not to bounce back, but this tour has presented a rude awakening for him. If he can respond to the setback as well as the side he may well one day lead responded to the defeat in Ahmedabad the experience may prove to be the making of him.

England will maintain the No.2 Test ranking if they remain unbeaten in the Test, while Cook, currently rated No.4 in the Test batting ratings, could become the first England batsman since Michael Vaughan, in 2003, to top the ratings. Cook is just five rating points behind number-one ranked Shivnarine Chanderpaul.

England have one big advantage going into this match: their opponents appear to be in something approaching chaos. Stories that some of the selectors and, perhaps, some of the players have questioned the position of the captain, MS Dhoni, only to have been vetoed by the BCCI chairman, the 'cement giant' N Srinivasan, can have done little to aid stability or harmony ahead of the game.

One of the Indian newspapers summed the situation up best with a cartoon of Sachin Tendulkar meeting the selectors and asking whether the time had come to discuss their futures. Everything is back to front. And Srinivasan truly is a man of cement.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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