After a series whitewash against India, England has established itself as the best Test playing nation in the world. The performances turned in during the last summer, against the team formerly ranked supreme, have firmly underlined the ICC’s ranking system.
The gulf between the sides in this series is abundantly clear. So far, while I am writing this article, England has scored 2809 runs in six innings for the loss of 47 wickets at an average of 59.76. India’s tally stands at 2055 for 80 at 25.68. That makes England, statistically, more than twice as good as India. However, you do not need to go too far back in history to find a completely different story.
In 1999, England was statistically the worst Test playing nation, following series defeat by New Zealand. The introduction of central contracts and Duncan Fletcher as head coach was the first step on the path to success. Whilst the road to the 2005 Ashes series win over Australia is almost as well documented as Freddie Flintoff’s post-series celebrations, the fallout from their success is often glossed over. When the Ashes returned to England with a 2-1 series win in the summer of 2009, the occasional cricket fan assumed that this was business as usual. But this was not so.
England succumbed to a succession of defeats and disappointments following the 2005 Ashes, losing to Pakistan that winter and drawing with Sri Lanka the following summer. The decline accelerated as Australia exacted meticulous revenge in a 5-0 Ashes romp on a hapless England side, captained by Flintoff.
The turning point came with the introduction of Andy Flower as head coach in 2008/9. While bonding with his team, the unflappable Andrew Strauss managed to harness their true potential and led them to the aforementioned Ashes triumph of 2009.
England’s transformation into present day world-beaters can be seen in reference to the other Test playing nations, the key components of their progression having been drawn from the sides that ranked above them in 2009. The determination and mental strength that this current side exhibits is one that Strauss and Flower fostered after feeling its effects first-hand, in the shape of an Australian team that reigned supreme from 2003 to 2010. Before his brilliant, game-saving hundred in Durban in 09/10, Bell had scored all of his Test centuries in innings where at least one of his teammates had also scored a century, encouraging criticism that he could not score runs under pressure. Under the leadership of Flower, he has since put that right.
As successful as Flower’s strategies have been, the side’s victory could not be envisioned without strength in depth. England’s fast bowling stock, for example, has risen so much that Stephen Finn, the ICC’s Emerging Player of the Year for 2010, is a regular 13th man. That many of these bowlers are also capable batsmen (Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan) is a further bonus. The presence of a genuinely world-class spinner (Swann) is another key to success and one, which will prove vital as England looks to cement its number one ranking on a diverse range of pitches across the world.
Some argue, however, that England has not become world-class but rather that the other sides have fallen apart. The Australian side has not looked the same since the spate of retirements that followed their whitewashing against England in the 2007 Ashes and it is now apparent that they did not adequately prepare a generation to pass the mantle onto. Twenty20 cricket may also have played its part in the Test ranking shift. Priorities have changed. With less money in the 5-day game, it seems as if many of the Indian players would rather be at the IPL. Sehwag played through the IPL with a shoulder niggle, knowing fully well that he would need surgery afterwards, which would make him unavailable, or at best out-of-form for the Test tour.
Therefore, as England stands on the shoulders of giants, having scaled the Test rankings, it now has the more difficult task of being the game’s beacon.