Fifteen years ago I predicted that by 2010 England would be the strongest team in the world. It was a bold forecast, since they have not claimed the top spot since Len Hutton was taking the shine off the new ball, Frank Tyson was terrorising batsmen and Jim Laker was outwitting them. And it has proved premature. England are not yet top of the tree but are climbing fast and showing no signs of vertigo.
Several factors lay behind the predication. England's main advantage is that for historical reasons most of its incoming populations are familiar with the game, if not devoted to it. Alone among the colonial powers England took its sports with them and sought to convince locals of their merits. Of course they argued that the games were character-building and so had an educational value. It was arrant nonsense. Englishmen of a certain sort have long tried to pretend that they are above all this nonsense. The poor dears spent too long fielding at third man in house matches and never quite recovered. Accordingly they became snooty and pseudo-intellectual and wasted their lives writing for obscure magazines.
Of all the cricketing countries, though, New Zealand is the most literate, with Australia not far behind. It is a meter of record. England is the most obsessed with sport. As much can be told from its cheerful following overseas and the number of reporters sent to cover matches, and at no little cost. England's failures have not reflected any lack of interest. Just that the emphasis was on quantity not quality.
But the influence of the immigrant populations has been crucial. At the last count about 150 foreign-born players had secured county contracts. And that does not count fellows like Monty Panesar, born and bred locally but into a Punjabi family. His ancestors come from Ludhiana, a teeming city not far from Chandigarh.
Thanks partly to European labour laws most of these players counted as locals. As a result English cricket became ever more diverse. Although fewer of the giants of the game signed on - considerably to the disadvantage of West Indian and eventually Australian cricket - as the international season spread and the IPL offered an alternative revenue stream the county books still bulged with all sorts. Football did not break the supply chain; Gary Neville, a promising batsman, was lost to the game but others stayed with bat and ball.
Long ago England depended on the aristocracy and the mines for cricketers. Both instilled strength, identity and purpose. Douglas Jardine and Harold Larwood. Ted Dexter and Fred Trueman reflected this curious and effective partnership. Eventually the empire ended and private schools were no longer called upon to train leaders. Finally the mines became uneconomical and the towns changed and the cricket clubs and brass bands faltered. English cricket had to look elsewhere.
Over the next 25 years it was unable to develop reliable new sources of talent. Nor were existing coaches and structures well placed to fill the gap. Television provided the money but the community remained inward-looking. County cricket became self-indulgent, with arranged declarations, lob bowling and other cynicisms creeping in. Inevitably the national team fell back. It is the product of the system, not it's saviour.
And then two important things happened. Astute appointments were made off the field. Huw Morris was plucked from Welsh cricket and invited to run the game. Meanwhile, four-day cricket had been introduced and the importance of central contracts was recognised. Money filtered through to the counties and, though much of it was wasted, the rewards for players rose. County cricket became an attractive proposition. And the uncertainties of the new South Africa meant that many frustrated and dedicated players were seeking greener pastures.
There is brightness about Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad that appeals whilst Alastair Cook belongs to an older tradition, the phlegmatic farmer who can survive the elements and the worst the Australians can throw at him
England's success has been due to its ability to make the most of these various influences. Africa arrived with its rigour. Four of the top seven team members were born on that continent. Two of them were imports but England could hardly turn them away. Two were raised locally but brought with them the harder outlook required to survive in raw places. Those convinced that their place of birth is a coincidence are defying a mathematical certainty. Incidentally Derek Pringle (the most underestimated of the English scribes) is also a son of Africa while David Gower spent most of his early life there and once said it was the happiest time of his life.
Next, England had the sense to choose another African, Andy Flower, as coach. Flower is tough, respected and measured, exactly the combination needed to get the best out of an ambitious team. Every player could respond to him. Hs task was not to harden the team but to bring out its hidden strengths. Neither England nor its cricketers had ever been soft. No one ever accused them of that. The island story tells quite another tale. Just that they had lacked leadership. But a culture can become self-indulgent without realising it and then an outside voice is essential.
England's other fortune has been that past players began to produce sons. Cricket has always been a game handed down the generations. Now an entire county side could be fielded from the offspring of the previous generation of first class cricketers. Three of them - Ryan Sidebottom, Chris Tremlett and Stuart Broad - have joined the highest ranks. Considering the investment, English cricket still is not producing enough players of its own but cricketing families are playing their part. If England stays on track then the coaches will be forced to respond. Already counties are trying harder than ever to instil a work ethic in their charges.
Happily, too, New England has brought a new breed of cricketers. There is brightness about Graeme Swann and Broad that appeals whilst Alastair Cook belongs to an older tradition, the phlegmatic farmer who can survive the elements and the worst Australians can throw at him.
It all bodes well. Add the insightful comments made by past captains like Nasser Hussain and Michael Atherton and the doughty work done by Graham Gooch and it is abundantly clear that England is intent on making the best of the resources at its disposal. The cricket community has cast aside its wanton ways and embraced hardness and intelligence.
Meanwhile the Australians are alarmed by the flaws exposed in their players and the system that produced them. As a rule Australians respond strongly to defeat. It is not to be tolerated. Most likely they will go back to basics by reinforcing grade and Shield cricket. Older hands in England will recognise the signs of distress.
After a long period England are back on track. Australia's problems have just begun. The first and last wickets in Adelaide told the story. Two middle-aged Australian players lost in a confusion of calls as an Africa-raised opponent, previously regarded as a commonplace fieldsman, seized the chance and threw down the single stump in his sights. A few days later the home team's incompetent tailender was baffled and beaten by an off-break that curled away and turned back between bat and pad.
This was not merely a battle between 4th and 5th nor yet between long-standing opponents or between north and south. It was a contest between rising and falling, young and aged, ambitious and anxious, expectant and hopeful, ruthless and delusional. For the first time in decades, Australia were the older and weaker side.
But England have not achieved their highest ambition. Nothing less than top place on the list will do. Long ago Australians stopped using England as their yardstick. It's time for the Poms to repay the compliment. Doubtless, trouncing Australia is satisfying but it cannot be enough. The rugged pursuit of excellence knows no such halfway house.
England's performance in Adelaide was the best seen from them in a quarter of a century. Although blessed with more talent, the 2005 outfit did not attain the sustained efficiency observed in the city of churches. From the sporting perspective it was superb to watch. But it ought to be a beginning and not an end, an inspiration not a celebration. England cannot rest till the top position has been secured. And that might require the cooperation of a group yet to pull its weight in the endeavour. That prediction was flawed. Back then it seemed obvious that the settler families from the West Indies would have a major part to play in the reformation of English cricket. So far that has not been the case.
English cricket still has a little way to travel. Of all games cricket is the most diverse, and ought to shout it from the roof tops. In a few nations it embraces white, black and brown, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian, colonial, post-colonial and anti-colonial, first and third world. All the more reason to excite the local Caribbean community so that their contribution is not wasted and English cricket becomes not merely an example of excellence but also a means of unification.
Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It