England don’t often top the world at team sports, despite producing individual sportsmen and women of awesome talent. Since the Glory Days of 1966, England’s football team has occasionally flattered to deceive, but mostly stuttered and disappointed. England won the Rugby World Cup in 2003, and have flirted with the top since then, but never quite sustained those performances. Even a year ago, England’s cricket team was only ranked 5th in the rankings.
Back in January I was overjoyed when England retained The Ashes in Australia for the first time in 25 years. That five-match series ended 3-1 to England, which by no means told the whole story of a gripping 6 weeks of sport. Today England completed a 4-0 whitewash of India (until a few weeks ago the top-ranked cricket test team in the world). England have replaced them as the best team in the world.
Unlike the Ashes, the 4-0 scoreline does pretty much tell the story of this series. England outplayed India in every respect, and barring a few sessions of play, this was the most one-sided series I can remember since England were humiliated in Australia in 2007. It has tested all my English reserve in not revelling ‘too much’ in this victory, but, well…
…there are plenty of reasons why England have become the best test cricket team in the world.
England’s bowling attack made great batsmen look ordinary, and has strength in depth more than any other team. To win test matches you have to take 20 wickets. England have taken 8o Indian wickets in 4 matches, while India took just 47 English wickets. Broad and Bresnan have taken 41 wickets by themselves at barely 15 runs apiece. Let’s not forget that Tim Bresnan came in as a replacement for the injured Chris Tremlett. Until this afternoon, Graeme Swann (apparently the 3rd best bowler in the world according to the latest ICC rankings) was a bit-player in the series. England now have 3 of the Top 5 and 5 of the Top 11 bowlers.
England have spirit and self-belief that means they can rescue a bad situation. Perhaps dating back to Cardiff in 2009, when Jimmy Anderson and Monty Panesar held out for 11 overs to rescue a draw against Australia, England have cultivated this tremendous quality. Test cricket is played over 5 days, eventually every team has a bad session. But the ability to persevere and believe you can change the situation is invaluable.
I was at the 4th day at Lords in the first test, and watched Ishant Sharma bowl a terrific spell to reduce England from 50-1 to 65-5. This wasn’t in the plan at all. But then Matt Prior and Stuart Broad scored 160 runs and took the game away from India in just a couple of hours. At Trent Bridge India led by 40 runs with plenty of 1st innings wickets in hand, but ended up losing by 319 runs overall. This was because of
(a) Stuart Broad… Named man of the series for taking 25 wickets at under 14 runs apiece, and scoring 182 runs in 4 innings at virtually a run a ball. Remember that before the series started, it had taken him 10 tests to take 25 wickets, and had scored only a handful of runs. At Lords he and Matt Prior took the game away when India threatened a recovery. At Trent Bridge he and Graeme Swann took England from 124-8 to over 200, then he took a hat-trick to restrict India’s lead. He dismissed Sachin Tendulkar three times. An amazing rebirth for a cricketer of undoubted talent…
(b) Tim Bresnan… A replacement for Tremlett, he ‘came off the bench’ to score 154 runs in 3 knocks and take 16 wickets.
(c) Ian Bell… who has come of age as a genuine world-class talent. In this series he switched to No.3 when Jonathon Trott was injured, and scored over 450 runs. Since the Boxing Day test in South Africa in 2009, he’s scored over 1,800 runs, averaging over 85, including 7 centuries.
(d) Kevin Pietersen… Before The Ashes series last winter, he was being written off as a busted flush. He top scored in this series, taking over as a run machine if Alastair Cook occasionally failed. He has mixed hard graft with extravagant technique, which makes him hard to bowl at…
(e) er, all of the above and more. It is true that the current England team is more than the sum of its considerable parts. We may have to start thinking of this as a team of true superstars, but they don’t behave like the Galacticos of Real Madrid. 3 players hit a double century in this series, 4 bowlers had a ‘five-for’ innings. I’ve not even mentioned how good Matt Prior has been both behind and in front of the stumps. Nobody averaged under 18 with the bat. Everyone has contributed, and often in significant ways.
The key challenge for England will be to maintain and prove their position. India were pretty woeful throughout this series, with only Raoul Dravid performing to his wonderful career heritage. Zaheer Khan was injured, but his replacements weren’t up to it. Sehwag was injured, then rushed back before he was fully fit. Others who had starred in recent series were tired, deflated or out of form, simply taken apart by England.
More importantly, England’s ascent to the summit has been on the back of several series wins in England. They may have only lost 4 of their last 31 tests, but to truly lead the cricketing world, they need to win in India, and to beat South Africa, whom they haven’t played since 2009, and whom still boast the best batsman in Jacques Kallis and the fearsome bowling attack of Steyn and Morkel. But if they can maintain their focus, collective and individual performance and team spirit, these should be challenges to relish and feel confident about.
It has been a terrific year for following the England test team. I’m looking forward to the future, and loving the feeling of being World Number 1…