England in India 2005-06 March 23, 2006

Scrapping in the Ring of Fire

No team can lay claim to greatness until they've turned in a good performance on the subcontinent, and yet, England have done just that, powered by a squad of reserves



A series-leveller against the odds for Andrew Flintoff and his troupes © Getty Images

For generations, the disaffected youth of Britain have been donning their backpacks in the grey of an English winter and setting off to the East to seek enlightenment in India. It is debatable, however, whether any of these karma-hunters can have awoken to quite such a glorious dawn as the one that greeted England's cricketers this morning in Mumbai, after a victory against the odds that will stand the test of time.

How great was England's triumph in yesterday's Mumbai Test? Well, let's deal with the important things first, great enough surely to send Johnny Cash back to the top of the UK Charts for the first time since the 1960s. Like myself, you've probably spent the last 24 hours humming "Ring of Fire" under your breath. If you haven't, then I recommend you try it - "tum tum tum ... a burning ring of fire, tum tum tum ... the flames went higher".

I find it a particularly good tune to take down an escalator with me, as I battle through adversity in the midst of the commuter rush and all that. And Matthew Hoggard, the man who provided England's inspirational lunchtime entertainment and who routinely sings to himself in mid-spell anyway, was probably still humming the refrain as he coolly pouched yesterday's two decisive boundary catches.

The point is, England kept things simple in this series, even as the flames licked higher all around an injury-ravaged squad and as they burned, burned, burned in the baking Mumbai heat. India is the big one, the sages like to say - "The final frontier", as Steve Waugh memorably dubbed it. No team can lay claim to greatness until they've turned in a good performance on the subcontinent, and yet, England have done just that, powered by a squad of reserves and an ironic choice of dressing-room entertainment. That's one in the eye for the motivational-speaking industry.

Admittedly, nobody's saying that England are great just yet - hell, they didn't even win the series, as one or two Australians will already be queuing up to point out. But that is precisely why India is regarded as the litmus test of greatness, rather than greatness itself. If you can excel yourself here, you can do it anywhere, and it's no coincidence that the two stand-out performers in this series are Andrew Flintoff and Matthew Hoggard, the two men who forged their reputations in similarly adverse conditions under Nasser Hussain's leadership four years ago.

Two more phlegmatic characters you could not care to meet, but both men know how to put in the hard yards when it matters, because they learned their trade in the toughest environment of all. " Flintoff and Hoggard were brilliant, absolutely brilliant," Nasser Hussain recalled to Cricinfo on the eve of this series. "They bent themselves double to bowl for me, and frankly I bowled them into the ground."

England lost that series 1-0 but in Hoggard, Flintoff, Michael Vaughan, Marcus Trescothick and Ashley Giles, they identified a band of brothers who have been at the heart of everything that has been good about the team, and more importantly the team spirit, in the intervening years. And seeing as everything in sport revolves in four-year cycles, it is not only appropriate but essential that the same, and more, has occurred on this trip as well. Alastair Cook, Monty Panesar, Owais Shah and James Anderson are four key performers who've always had the talent, but now they have the experience as well to broaden England's quest to become the undisputed champions of the world.

But before we get too excited about the future, let's analyse this achievement in terms of the men who were not there. What, for instance, would have become of Australia's prospects had they also entered such a pivotal series without the services of, Ricky Ponting, their captain; Matthew Hayden, their best opening batsman; Glenn McGrath, their senior strike bowler; Brett Lee, their most incisive paceman; and Shane Warne, their No. 1 spinner?

It's tempting to suggest they would have been smashed out of sight, as indeed they were when an injury-ravaged squad set off for the subcontinent in 1997-98. But when they did eventually win in India two winters ago, Ponting was absent with a broken hand, Hayden was largely anonymous and though McGrath and the much-lamented Jason Gillespie were magnificent, the real star of the show was the twinkle-toed debutant, Michael Clarke, who scored a glorious century in the first Test and took a remarkable 6 for 9 in the last. Which just goes to show, not only can you win with kids, as Alan Hansen didn't quite say, but that youthful enthusiasm also goes a long way towards overcoming the unique challenges posed on the subcontinent.

That much became apparent after England's first leg of the winter, the pre-Christmas tour to Pakistan, which in its own way has proven equally important to the long-term development of the side. The evidence of that 2-0 towelling was of tired bodies and sated ambitions, and the overriding impression was that the Ashes was not the beginning of an epic journey towards world domination, as had been hoped, but the end of another, far less glamorous journey - the one from mediocrity to respectability.

Before England start getting too smug about India's disaster at Mumbai ... remember Lahore. Back in December, a side containing nine Ashes-winners lost eight wickets for 43 runs on the final afternoon of that match, having at one stage been comfortably placed at 205 for 2. The key difference, however, was that England were 1-0 down in that campaign already and so had lost the chance to pull off their seventh series win in a row. All that remained to be fought for was pride, and in Ian Bell (92) and Paul Collingwood (80), they had two bit-part Ashes performers who recognised an opportunity to atone for disappointing summers. Their dismissals after lunch, however, killed any remaining interest in the contest.

That capitulation of spirit, and the chain of events that followed, remind me of an old Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch from Beyond the Fringe, a parody of those old black-and-white war films in which the plucky Brit invariably triumphed over adversity. Given the soundtrack of the series just gone, one can half imagine Duncan Fletcher sticking it on the dressing-room speakers as his players trooped off the field at Lahore.

"We're two down, and the ball's in the enemy court. War is a psychological thing, Perkins, rather like a game of football. You know how in a game of football ten men often play better than eleven?

Yes, sir.

Perkins, we are asking you to be that one man. I want you to lay down your life, Perkins. We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war. Get up in a crate, Perkins, pop over to Bremen, take a shufti, don't come back. Goodbye, Perkins. God, I wish I was going too."

Michael Vaughan, Marcus Trescothick, Steve Harmison, Simon Jones and Ashley Giles, take a bow. You've taken one for the team, and suddenly the future seems a more beautiful thing. The selection meeting for the Lord's Test in May will be an entertaining one to eavesdrop upon.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo