Matches (11)
IPL (2)
RHF Trophy (4)
Pakistan vs New Zealand (1)
WT20 Qualifier (4)

England belong at the top

England will have to take their winning game to the subcontinent to tick off a crucial box, but they have a few ingredients that suggest their grip on the top ranking will be firmer than India's

England celebrate their rise to No. 1  •  AFP

England celebrate their rise to No. 1  •  AFP

The only lament for the supporters of English cricket at this moment of glory would be that it was utterly devalued by the abjectness of the opposition. The matter got so desperate on the fourth day that they joined the Indian fans in chanting Praveen Kumar's name as he threw some meaty punches and warmly applauded him back to the dressing-room after his dismissal. No one who had paid for a seat would have wished to be so emphatically denied of a contest.
Of course England cannot be held to account for the feebleness of their opponents. They dealt with what was presented to them to with full force and have now seized the No. 1 ranking with the swagger of a team that belongs. As India have been reminded so painfully on this tour, the top rank on the ICC table doesn't necessarily translate to indisputable supremacy but, by administering India the mightiest of routs, England have built the most compelling of cases.
It is a moment of huge significance for English cricket because their success hasn't arrived merely by accident or by the happy coincidence of a burst of talent. It has been engineered through years of planning and building and the meticulous construction of a template that made success inevitable.
It can be argued that the best of England met the worst of India in this series. But as India's resistance dissolved into nothingness on the fourth morning, so did the grounds for excuses. Batting on a pitch that yielded England 710 runs, India - fielding their best possible batting line-up - were reduced to 130 for 7.
The Indian task was hopeless to start with but in many ways it offered their batsmen a last shot at redemption. In one hour of magnificent swing bowling, James Anderson put the final stamp on the comprehensive superiority of England's bowlers over India's batsmen. It became abundantly clear in that hour, if it hadn't been apparent already, that no matter how well India had prepared, and how mentally and physically fresh they were, England would still have prevailed. Not once in their climb to the top had India's batsmen encountered a bowling unit so skillful and so persistently relentless.
It is futile to go on droning about the ill luck with injury that first removed Zaheer Khan and then Harbhajan Singh. England lost Chris Tremlett after the first Test and Jonathan Trott during the second and for the third and yet grew stronger by the Test. Ian Bell took the No. 3 spot at Edgbaston and made a hundred, and Tim Bresnan has made such an impact that Tremlett will struggle to regain his place in the playing XI. Teams are also judged by their depth; India found themselves hopelessly exposed.
It is futile now to look back on those two post-tea sessions in the second Test at Trent Bridge that decisively tilted the series England's way. Test matches are rarely won by winning only a couple of sessions. The striking difference between the two sides was that India were never able to hold their advantage and England always found the means to retrieve a lost session.
Any comparison with the great teams of the past would be premature - and England will have to take their winning game to the subcontinent to tick off a crucial box - but they have a few ingredients that suggest their grip on the top ranking will be firmer than India's: the strongest and most versatile bowling attack in the world currently; a batting line-up that combines solidity at the top with flair at the bottom; a strong number seven and the best tail in the world; and the belief, instilled by performances, that no cause is lost until it is lost. Most crucially, they are a relatively young team with players yet to hit the peak of their careers.
India's hold over the No 1 ranking was always tenuous. Unlike England, their climb to the top was driven not by the system but by the talent and passion of a group of extraordinary cricketers. It was sustained not, as it is usually the case with dominant Test teams, by a group of match-winning bowlers, but by the ability of a once-in-lifetime batting line-up. The wins were achieved by a few memorable bowling performances, but the batsmen ensured that not many Tests were lost.
The reason why the air of despondency is so thick around Indian cricket in the aftermath of their Birmingham defeat - their third biggest in history and the biggest since 1974 at Lord's when they were bowled out for 42 - is that their batting has not, in the past ten years, been so embarrassing over a period of six innings. As they slumped to 56 for 4 in the morning session today, there was a real danger that they would be beaten by Alastair Cook alone. And when the last wicket fell midway through the second session, someone wondered if they should be granted a third innings for the sake of the 8000 spectators who had shown their faith by buying non-refundable tickets for the final day at 15 pounds each.
The scary part for the Indian fan is that the golden age of Indian cricket might have already passed. The batting isn't likely to grow stronger in the immediate future. If anything, it will grow progressively weak as the greats start departing. The Indian cricket administration has done a spectacular job harnessing the passion of the Indian fans to become the richest, and consequently, the most powerful cricket body in the world. But a vision for sporting excellence has rarely been a boardroom agenda. During this Test, Gautam Gambhir and MS Dhoni were asked about the effect of excessive cricket on the mental and physical readiness of the team. Both refused to offer direct answers. Gambhir said it was a question for the BCCI. Dhoni offered no comments, saying that he didn't want to start a controversy. What they didn't say said enough.
It is no shame to lose to a team that has been decidedly superior. What should hurt Indian cricket is that there hasn't even been the pretence of a contest. It's hard to recall a fall from grace so dramatic, so swift and so complete. While it shouldn't obscure what this team has achieved over the past decade, it's the next ten years that Indian cricket should worry about. Something could still come out of this if the lessons from the wreckage were absorbed.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo