They came to see England become the No 1 Test-playing country, for the first time, and the nation’s finest cricketers delivered with the vigorous and joyous efficiency that has become their trademark. Edgbaston’s clock stood at five past three when the last Indian batsman, like so many of his predecessors, could not cope with the unrelenting accuracy of England’s pace bowlers and poked a catch to gully. England’s new position as No 1 in the Test rankings was sealed by an innings and 242 runs, and against the country that had been No 1, even if India have not begun to play as such in this series. No crown was passed in the post-match ceremonies from MS Dhoni to Andrew Strauss: Test cricket, almost alone in this age, does not do ostentation and triumphalism. But there did not need to be any, for nothing could have been more satisfying for Strauss and his players than to know that they had transformed themselves from mid-table mediocrity to the best in 2½ years.
Strauss took over in January 2009, heading a team he had no part in choosing, and was joined by Andy Flower when he was promoted to head coach that April. Together they cleansed the stables of the traditional defects of English cricket – the excuses and lies inherent in a culture of playing for your own career – and plotted the course that culminated in Saturday’s climax.
England were sixth in the world when the Andocracy was formed: and they were a team of talented individuals and cliques. More than half the players who started this historic journey remain, but they are different players and people, who celebrate each other’s successes almost – almost – as their own.
The successes, since the right foundations were laid, have unfolded with scarcely a hitch. After losing in the West Indies in March 2009, England have won eight out of nine Test series. The blemish was a shared 1-1 series in South Africa, the one country that now seems capable of giving England a contest.
Not simply to defeat, but to demolish India, no matter how ill-prepared the tourists were, was the work of a team that henceforth merits the label of great. And here’s the nub: not one of the XI could actually be called, without qualification, great. England have been turned into a great team by cricketers who are all very good – or, in the case of the junior members Eoin Morgan and Tim Bresnan, are on the road to becoming so – and utterly dedicated to the common goal.
England beat India by 196 runs at Lord’s, and 319 runs at Trent Bridge, both times after losing an important toss. Here England were always ahead and Alastair Cook, the man of the match, scored more runs than India managed in either innings.
England even rectified the one real weakness in their game, or rather found a way round it. They are now a great team nine-tenths of the time, but not when they are in the field between overs 70 and 80. It could be considered rather endearing – something village cricketers can relate to – when they put on Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen to rest their pace bowlers before the second new ball. But it will not do if they are to remain No 1.
Here India were blown away in both innings well before the 70th over. But in the five previous Tests this season, Sri Lanka and India scored 237 runs between the 70th and 80th overs without losing a wicket. That is quite a lot of ground conceded that should be contested.
There was never much possibility of India batting until the second new ball on Saturday once James Anderson switched to the new pavilion end and sank his teeth into India’s top order. If Sachin Tendulkar had nicked one, Anderson would have claimed the most illustrious ‘five-for’ in the game’s history.
Gautam Gambhir pushed away from his body at his first ball of the day; Rahul Dravid was adjudged caught behind by Steve Davis but an eagled-eyed camera showed the bat flicking his bootlace, not the ball.
India’s batsmen have been spoiled by the nothing pitches that prevail around the world – including England in some recent summers – and especially the younger ones. It sums up India’s predicament that their one player who wants the ball to come to him in the field, Suresh Raina, is the one most averse to it coming at him when he bats.
Briefly Tendulkar stood proud amid the wreckage and played exquisite drives. But cricket’s capacity to bring anyone down to size was illustrated yet again when Tendulkar was run out by Graeme Swann, deflecting a straight-drive by Dhoni; and when Anderson, too eager for his fifth wicket, conceded 50 from his last seven overs.
Swann was carted too, by Praveen Kumar, a frolicsome fighter, who slogged five fours and three sixes from only 18 balls (Kumar was hit on his right hand but will not mind too much if he misses a feather-bed at the Oval). Swann missed a trick by not bowling something slower and wider at Kumar who, with Dhoni, hit 21 from an over. But soon enough Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan mopped up.
Dhoni has now lost as many Tests in this series as he had in his three previous years as captain. His batsmen have yet to post 300 this summer; his bowlers, without Zaheer Khan to guide them, cannot enact a plan. To get India up by Thursday could be Duncan Fletcher’s biggest test yet as coach.
But the last word on England’s achievement should rest with Pietersen’s toddler, who tried to kick a football on the outfield after the close. The England players performed — to the utmost – while their children were looked after in a crèche in the indoor school. The sort of arrangement you might have thought would have existed for decades, but eventuated only because of the Andocracy’s attention to every detail.