ON A balcony at The Oval 12 years ago, Nasser Hussain was jeered. He stood there looking out over the ground and said defiantly: “I’m proud of my team and the way they fought.” They booed some more.
INDIA 224 & 244
England had just lost the fourth Test of the summer to New Zealand by 83 runs and plummeted to the bottom of the world. In the judgement of the Wisden World Championship, as it was then, they were the worst of all the Test nations - below the likes of Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, light years behind Australia. Nobody argued.
When they leave The Oval next Monday, if it gets that far, it will be the anniversary of that grotesque occasion. England are no longer the worst Test team in the world. They are the best.
That much was confirmed in outstanding style at Edgbaston on Saturday when they won the third Test against India by an innings and 242 runs to go 3-0 up in the series. They stand at the head of the International Cricket Council rankings, as they are now, having replaced India. Nobody is arguing.
The system for deducing places in this table is arcane, based on mathematical formulae governing conditions and purported strength of opponents. Andrew Strauss, England’s captain, did not profess to understand it in the wake of the great victory.
It bears uncanny similarity to the Schleswig-Holstein Question, which was understood by only three men, of whom one was dead, one had gone mad and one had forgotten. But Strauss, as he has done so astutely with his team, got to the nub of it: “To get to No 1, you’ve got to win a lot of cricket games.”
So you do, and so England have. Of their last 35 Test matches since the beginning of 2009, they have lost five. Of the 10 series those matches have embraced, they have lost only one, the first, and won eight, the last six consecutively. A lot of cricket games indeed.
They have a team in which everybody knows what they are doing and does it: six batsmen, four bowlers, who bring different approaches, a wicketkeeper-batsman, strength in depth.
The road to this resplendent redemption began on that balcony that Saturday afternoon on 22 August 1999. Hussain, a proud and challenging cove, was already plotting the way ahead and what it might take to negotiate. He knew that it could not go on as it had.
Along the way from bottom to top, there have been reversals, interruptions and distractions. A step forward has been followed by one backwards and then another sideways. Policy change has been intertwined with regime change. Genuine achievement has been squandered by an assumption that the job was complete. Individual glory has sometimes been allowed to intrude on the team objective.
The story involves five captains, three coaches and a total of 78 players. Hussain, who had been appointed at the start of the series against New Zealand, was soon joined by a new coach, Duncan Fletcher.
Together they gradually turned England into a resilient side who lacked flair but learned the virtues of patience, fitness and resolve. They found a pair of opening bowlers (Andrew Caddick and Darren Gough), they found a new opening batsman (Marcus Trescothick) and they had enough obduracy in their batting to see them through exacting challenges.
Crucially, in the summer of 2000, England introduced a system of similar contracts. For the first time he who paid the piper was calling the tune. The right players were not invariably chosen but it was the foundation not only of controlling workload but of the continuity in team selection which has been the bedrock of success.
Selectors had traditionally looked elsewhere when times were hard, never afraid to admit previous errors and always searching for the next panacea which often lasted all of three or four caps. Central contracts gave them much less flexibility, otherwise what was the point? In a way they cramped themselves and a good thing it was.
England won in Pakistan for the first time in 30 years and followed that with an equally gruelling series victory in Sri Lanka. These were significant milestones. There was a hardness about the team that had never existed.
Hussain’s legacy endures and his contribution to the status England have now attained, when almost all the players with whom he shared a dressing room have long since gone (with one notable exception) should not be forgotten. He knew when to go too and after quitting the captaincy, his pride and joy, in 2003, he quit as a player the following year.
The reason for his departure after scoring a century against New Zealand, whom England were now hammering, was the arrival of Strauss. A new captain, Michael Vaughan, was driving England onward, also in tandem with Fletcher. Vaughan improved the team’s fitness still further and he and Fletcher immediately liked and respected each other.
They got lucky too. Some exceptional players began to reach their peak. New bowlers were found, so the old new-ball pair of Caddick and Gough, were replaced gradually by Stephen Harmison, a fast bowler in the proper sense, and an all-rounder to die for in Andrew Flintoff, who realised before it was too late what he had to do to make the most of his talent.
Under Vaughan’s inspirational leadership, England won six Test series in succession culminating in the 2005 Ashes. Then it went wrong. There were several reasons. Perhaps the most glaring was that the goal, almost the solitary target, of English cricket then was to win the Ashes. That achieved, there seemed nowhere to go.
For a while it seemed as if there were a Mephistophelean pact. The price for being allowed to win the great prize was eternal damnation. England were never the same under the Vaughan-Fletcher axis.
The Ashes-winning 12 never played together again in any combination. Vaughan suffered injury from which he never fully recovered but he remained as official captain. It was understandable for he was the man who had led England to a victory over Australia for the first time in 16 years (and 42 days, because everybody was counting). But it was unhealthy and his non-playing presence in Australia when England went to defend the Ashes loomed over the tour.
Fletcher began to mistake loyalty for assiduous selection, he was never comfortable with Flintoff as captain (as Flintoff was never comfortable with it) and England lost 5-0. Flintoff had been preferred for the job to Strauss. In a split vote, Fletcher voted for Flintoff.
It was time for a review of the structure, Fletcher’s days were numbered, Vaughan stayed on for a while with a new coach, Peter Moores, but that was a marriage of convenience. Eventually, Vaughan realised it could not continue and resigned in tears.
In came Kevin Pietersen and out again soon enough. The early days of 2009 were cataclysmic for English cricket. Pietersen had been unable to forge a working relationship with Moores and in trying to engineer his dismissal was himself also deposed.
It was a mess. England had only one place to turn and they asked Strauss to fill the role of captain. They asked the former Zimbabwe wicketkeeper-batsman Andy Flower to be the acting coach. Never can such triumph have come from such adversity.
Strauss had assumed his chance was gone, Flower had assumed that he would have to wait a long, long time for such an opportunity. But what a pairing they have been.
Almost immediately, after contacting all the players individually, Strauss said he wanted them all to take more responsibility. “I’m challenging them to take ownership a bit more.” It seemed a statement of the obvious, but in promoting the cause of individual responsibility, he and Flower were also ensuring their obligation to the team.
Talented players have been vital, of course. England can rarely, if ever, have had quite such a potent bowling attack at the same time as having such a formidable batting order. They have been an undiluted pleasure to watch.
Under Strauss and Flower, England have scored 20,010 runs and taken 582 wickets while conceding 17,929 runs and losing 457. It is why they are the best side in the world. And if Strauss speaks from The Oval balcony at the end of next week and says: “I’m proud of my team and the way they fought” the cheers will ring round the world.
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