No shackles for new England
Why is the England cricket team suddenly so much better than we thought - even out in the 50-over fields? I know, already you think, "Here comes another of those colonial lectures - suffocation by England, his England." Well, maybe, but you have to admit they look a pretty good outfit. Yes, the conditions are handy right now - hand warmers, the moving ball, the long, slow drip of an innings - and the Australians looked "a point", as the French might say. But believe it, Captains Cook and Strauss and their merry men have got something going that is the envy of just about everyone else.
The biggest change in English cricket has been attitude. Not so long ago, rain meant a day off; now it means a missed opportunity. County players rejoiced in not playing - the suits can't fire you if you haven't taken guard - and young players had their enthusiasm chipped at by old pros who wanted baths run and drinks served. You dared not speak unless spoken to. Ah, that wretched rite of passage that earned England many a moniker abroad. Now, though, much of abroad is in England and the immigrant minorities drive the culture every bit as much as do the locals. Two of the last three coaches have been out of Zimbabwe, a place where the chance of a game of cricket is not a given. Slowly, over a decade, and with the telling purpose of Michael Vaughan and Andrew Strauss galvanising the dressing room, the idea of playing international cricket has done a 360 - from Fear Index to Fun House.
In Test cricket, where you can grind an opponent down, the results of this new philosophy were apparent the minute a bowling attack emerged. In one-day cricket, where risk has a greater premium, England did not break out of their introspection so easily. Shackled and drawn, those players plucked from the county game's inglorious past were overrun by the free spirits they faced overseas. The first people to understand this and react to it (not easy) were Dermot Reeve and Adam Hollioake, at Warwickshire and Surrey respectively, but neither was a truly international cricketer himself, and thus had no more than a fleeting influence on the game around him. Both knew that it was okay to be caught at long-off or to bowl a long-hop in an attempt at a bouncer. "Let go of yourself," they cried, "show off your crazy diamonds!" But, like the ghostly runs made from midfield by Martin Peters in 1966, they were before their time and not so widely appreciated.
England have come so far that these days it is a bit of a let-down if Ian Bell does not smash the new ball over mid-off for six - like the Stones not playing "Satisfaction". Alastair Cook, of all people, has taken to backing outside leg stump and rifling a respectable delivery through cover. Stuart Broad bowls a collection of allsorts that Derek Shackleton could no more relate to than the salary Broad earns from them.
England are winning 50-over matches - 12 without a loss in a row, which include four consecutive successes against Pakistan in the drier than dry UAE, some sort of compensation for the Test series thumping - because their minds are in the fun house. This is not to say they are without discipline. Far from it, discipline is at the core of their performance. It is a philosophical thing and is spreading to the county game, allowing players such as Jonny Bairstow and Jade Dernbach to arrive in the England set-up all clued up.
A clear, uninhibited approach has allowed the tactics to advance alongside it. England's strongest suit is a set of bowlers who look to attack. "Keep it tight, son" has morphed into "Knock him over, Finny." So regularly do England take wickets that momentum against them is a rare thing. The selectors are choosing specialists and it shows. The bowlers are comfortable in their skin; the batsmen understand the construction of an innings and then apply that knowledge to the demands of a run rate, each with their own take on innovation; the fielders hunt run-outs as an expression of their desire, not as an option with an overthrow as the downside.
Of course, the two new white balls have played into English hands and will continue to do so, even on the subcontinent, where much is left to prove. India is not convinced by England because England have never been convincing in India. Good fast bowlers and batsmen who rely on method for their initial progress thrive on the luxury of two new balls, the hardness, the seam, the sheen. Wristier batting and more fiddly bowling - old ball, soft ball cricket - will be needed in MS Dhoni's land early next year.
For the minute, though, it is South Africa who must tell us just how good England are. On the green and pleasant lands of home, no one else is running close and most are running scared. Amongst these South Africans are some of the best in the world. Graeme Smith will not be bullied and Jacques Kallis will not be moved. The bowling attack is worthy of the name and the fielders catch flies. But they will have to be at their best to break this England - confident, cocky, charismatic England, where the culture changed and so did the results.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK