India in England 2011 August 24, 2011

How good are this England side?

Andrew Strauss leads a ruthlessly competent outfit but it currently lacks the genius that underpinned the all-time great teams of the past

On the eve of the fourth Test, Statsguru dug out a factoid that made even Andrew Strauss raise his eyebrows in acknowledgement. In the whole of the 1980s, England's cricketers scraped together a total of 20 victories in 104 Tests. One more win at The Oval - which was duly delivered on Monday by an innings and eight runs - and Strauss's men have now amassed that same tally in just 31 games, dating back to Andy Flower's official appointment as England coach in May 2009.

The weight of those numbers cast England's current excellence in an extraordinary historical light, but there's still a temptation to scoff at the findings. In the press box shortly after Strauss's press conference, a former stalwart of the 1980s (now a broadsheet journalist) denounced the statistic as entirely spurious. "How would Alastair Cook have got on against Malcolm Marshall?" he thundered. "Do you think Graham Gooch was ever served up these sorts of pies?" It's hard to deny he had a point.

At some stage in the next handful of years, most of the men who currently reside in England's top five are likely to surpass the England record for Test hundreds (22, held jointly by Wally Hammond, Colin Cowdrey and Geoff Boycott), and at least three of them - Cook, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen - should overhaul Gooch's record tally of 8900 Test runs. Few would dispute the worthiness of such achievements, but in an era suddenly stripped of many of the greatest bowlers of all time - from the recent losses of Warne, McGrath and Muralitharan, to the more distant retirements of Wasim, Waqar and Donald - it's hard to contextualise the success that England are currently enjoying.

It's an issue that thrusts right to the heart of the ongoing debate about the future of Test cricket, a debate that has been intensified by India's frighteningly poor showing, particularly in the absence of their one cutting-edge bowler, Zaheer Khan. England are clearly top dogs on merit, having won eight and drawn one of their past nine series - and that draw came on a hard-fought tour of South Africa, the only other true contenders to their World No. 1 title. But, as their players soar to the top of the world rankings (four of the top ten batsmen, three of the top five bowlers), the extent of their dominance seems improbably absolute.

And yet, it has ever been thus. If there is a single lesson to be taken from the long and illustrious history of Test cricket - and certainly in the past four decades since professionalism took hold of a formerly amateur sport - it is that those teams who climb to the top through their own endeavours tend to cement their position for a long, long time. England's 25 months' of outstanding results might not be considered a representative sample to place alongside the great West Indian and Australian teams of recent vintage, but the parallels are already striking.

In September 1984, in the aftermath of their 5-0 whitewash tour of England, West Indies boasted three of the top five batsmen in the world (Richards, Greenidge and Lloyd) and three of the top six bowlers (Garner, Marshall and Holding). In February 2002, around the time that Warne and McGrath were crushing South Africa in five out of six back-to-back fixtures, only Mark Waugh of Australia's top seven batsmen was ranked outside the world's top ten.

Unlike most sports, in particular football, in which one team can batter a goalmouth for 90 minutes, only to concede defeat through a careless breakaway goal, there's little place to hide in the course of a full five-day Test match. That means that, short of extraordinary individual feats or a spate of injuries and illness, few opponents escape a beating when the top teams start to stretch their legs.

Can England really warrant a mention in the same breath? That the current side is stacked with talent is not in question. Kevin Pietersen has been a class act for years, while Ian Bell is suddenly playing like the game's next all-time great - which in itself is a staggering turnaround in fortunes. However, the team's over-arching strategy amounts to little more than the pursuit of ruthless competence - epitomised by Cook's mind-over-matter style of run-harvesting, and Anderson's transformation from wayward purveyor of magic balls to teak-tough line-and-length merchant.

There's no mystery in England's methods - Graeme Swann has no doosra, for instance, and for all his Warne-esque confidence, it's too late for him to put an entire nation under his spell, in the manner that the Ball of the Century in 1993 settled not only that Ashes series but almost every other England fixture up to and including the Adelaide Test in 2006-07. Nor is there a great deal of menace, either. Stuart Broad's bouncer has regained its effectiveness now that he's remembered to pitch the rest of his balls up, but Holding at Old Trafford or Patterson at Sabina Park he most definitely is not. And while Anderson is adapt at swinging the ball conventionally, the team rarely conjures up moments like this.

It was the onset of professionalism that drove the West Indians to greatness, firstly through the need to justify Kerry Packer's wage bills, and then through the realisation that their heightened fitness gave them a mental and physical edge over the flabby amateurs that made up the rest of the Test-playing world. Thirty years on, it is now England's heightened professionalism that's pulling them away from the pack, in a fixture-congested era in which mental flab at Test level is all too apparent. With Twenty20 driving the global agenda, too few individuals have the staying power to match a Cook or Rahul Dravid.

When competence encounters genius, there's usually only one winner, which is one very good reason to believe England will not last at the top. The trouble is, where are all the genius bowlers?

It is said that the acid test for this England team will come when they are faced with Asian pitches in the UAE and Sri Lanka this winter, though it's hard to believe that's really the case. If any side has the ingredients to triumph in such conditions, it is England - the fittest squad of international cricketers on the planet, whose batsmen have demonstrated the dedication required to grind out big scores in attritional passages of play, whose bowlers build pressure by strangling runs, and whose spinner, Swann - for all that he falls short of true greatness - is indisputably the best in the game at present.

There is a historical precedent as well. Pakistan and Sri Lanka were the opponents in England's most unanticipated triumph of the past 20 years, their back-to-back series wins under Nasser Hussain in 2000-01. A decade on, the personnel have changed beyond recognition, but the mantra to which England operate is scarcely any different to Hussain's great battle-cry: "Stay in the game at all costs". Keep your focus from first ball to last, Hussain demanded, and at some stage over the course of a five-day Test, the moment will come when the intensity of your opponents falters - or, to judge by England's recent tally of seven innings victories in their last 13 Tests, entirely vanishes.

There may have been an exponential growth in England's expertise in the intervening ten years, as the merits of central contracts and the wisdom of experience have taken a hold on the squad mentality, but the basic approach under Strauss and Flower is undeniably similar to that instilled by Hussain. What, though, does that say about the standard of Test cricket in the 21st century that a tactic that used to be the minimum requirement for competitiveness now offers a route to utter dominance?

India's flaccid performance in the recent Test series was shocking but instructive - not least on that final day at The Oval, when the inspiration provided first by Rahul Dravid's epic first-innings defiance, and then by the utter composure of the nightwatchman Amit Mishra, was not enough to coax the rest of the team into a similar show of defiance. It ought to have been an occasion such as South Africa produced at Lord's in 2008, when Hashim Amla and Neil McKenzie gritted their team to safety. Instead, India shipped seven wickets for 21 in an appropriately miserable denouement.

Passages of play such as Mishra's stand with Sachin Tendulkar prove that England are not unstoppable, but given that no team in the world can replicate their current levels of desire, it's going to take something extra to derail their ambitions. In fact, that something extra has already been witnessed on three occasions in the past 18 months - Dale Steyn at Johannesburg, Mohammad Amir at The Oval, and Mitchell Johnson at Perth. Three devastating bowling spells that not even the best-drilled batsmen in the world could handle.

When competence encounters genius, there's usually only one winner, which is one very good reason to believe England will not last at the top. The trouble is, where are all the genius bowlers? Amir and Mohammad Asif will be suspended when England face Pakistan this winter, while Murali and Lasith Malinga have retired from Test cricket for Sri Lanka. Of England's forthcoming opponents, only Steyn and his sidekick Morne Morkel appear, at this precise moment in time, to have the necessary skills to rattle the most resolute, but without a third seamer to match the perseverence of a Tim Bresnan, England's batsmen will doubtless back themselves to see out the tough times, and thrive later on.

England's current dominance may well be on merit, but in an era of flat decks and stretched priorities, it's perhaps not as hard as it used to be to get top grades. In the meantime, India have a year in which to digest that point and plan for the rematch on home soil. No cricketing nation has more scope to unearth the type of matchwinner that is needed to unsettle England's artisans, but if competence is cricket's new gold standard, don't bet on the BCCI getting their act together in time.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo