Barring an improbable degree of hell or high water then, before the weekend is out, England will officially become the finest Test team in the world at the sport that, more than any other, defines the nation.
If, or more likely, when England secure victory over India in the Third Test, they will displace their opponents at the top of the official International Cricket Council (ICC) Test match rankings.
The third day at Edgbaston was a lugubrious one, including two absurd interruptions for bad light, with England efficiently pushing home their advantage to outrageous proportions. In reply to India’s feeble 226, they reached 710 for seven, their highest total since 1938, the summer of Len Hutton and Neville Chamberlain.
The declaration came when the indefatigable Alastair Cook finally holed out for 294 while aiming to become England’s first triple centurion since his mentor Graham Gooch in 1990. The ground would have gone wild had he succeeded. But, judging by his calm reaction at 200, Cook might have regarded it as just another wayside marker. Jubilation is for ordinary mortals.
England then removed Virender Sehwag first ball for the second time in the match – a king pair, the batting equivalent of zero on the Kelvin scale. To be more precise, Sehwag removed himself. Always a dasher, he seems now to think a five-minute Test is too long. They finished on 35 for one, 451 behind, and it is just about impossible to imagine a change in attitude that could enable them to bat out two full days.
Assuming England do go top, this will be no ordinary changing of the guard. England have never led this table, either in its current form or its original incarnation when it was devised by Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack in 1995 (declaration of interest: I was the editor). Indeed, for a brief, humiliating moment in 1999, after losing at home to New Zealand, they touched rock bottom. Worse than Zimbabwe.
Hardly anyone can explain why England might be top. We are informed that victory in this match will do the job, but not why. Whereas the Wisden system worked on a genuine league table, the ICC opted for an opaque method understood by its inventor, David Kendix, and perhaps six other people. Like the rankings in football, golf (number one: Luke Donald, who has never won a major tournament) and women’s tennis (Caroline Wozniacki, ditto), this list might have little credibility. Except that no one is arguing.
Through consistent selection and intelligent leadership, England have made the most of a gifted generation of players and turned them into an intimidating group of fit and hungry professionals.
It has been a long and winding road since 1999 but one has sensed for some time they are reaching their destination. England destroyed the fallen giants of Australia in the winter, and their domination of India has been astonishing. For those of us who owe their grey hairs to watching England play cricket, it has been quite disorientating. For most of our lives, the team’s failings have been a given of national life, a standing joke to rank alongside the weather and the railways.
There was a brief respite in the 1950s – the era of May and Cowdrey, Trueman and Statham, names that still ring down the decades. No rankings then, but that was probably the only era since the first world war when England were unquestionably Number one. The 1959 Indian team were so overmatched that even some of the cricket correspondents got bored before England completed their 5-0 series win and wandered off to cover the County Championship.
But no one expected much of India in those days. This series has been just as one-sided. But the 1959 team can hardly have been worse than this lot – rich beyond dreams of avarice, stuffed with talent shading into genius – whose performance has been at best distracted and heading towards disgraceful.
The contest represents one team performing at their peak and the other at a nadir. It also represents two contrasting visions of cricket. Most English cricketers are as money motivated as any other sportsmen, but they know their fame and marketability depends on their place in the Test team and in collective success, and even the more overweening egos buy into the ethic that delivers that.
The Indians have become so dazzled by public adoration, the lure of the hit-and-giggle 20-over Indian Premier League and their ubiquity as celebrities that they have lost their appetite for actually playing the game.
But why do the Indian public love cricket so much? Because it’s the only game at which the country is globally competitive. If performances like this are the harbinger of the future, India might decide to switch their love to another sport at which they can lose.
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