England overhauled India at the top of the Cricket World rankings in a style that was impressive emphatic, and bordered on the utterly frightening, leaving no doubt whatsoever as to who the superior side has been over the three tests that have taken place so far in the series. Even a victory for the visitors in the final match at the Oval would not be enough to cling on to the place at the summit that they held before arriving on these shores, and such an outcome appears highly unlikely given not only the results of the first three matches, but the manner of them and the trendline that appears to have been followed. 196 runs, 319 runs and on this occasion the small matter of an innings and 242. At the points where it mattered most, MS Dhoni's side have appeared to forfeit the game, with match situations that required determination and strength instead ending in tame surrender. In fact on one level, it would make sense for them not to turn up at all at the Oval on Thursday.
The challenger has taken the fight to the champion and not just won on points, but thoroughly battered, bruised and ripped the belt away from him while he lies bloodied on the canvas. Not only have they been superior in all three disciplines of the game from a technical point of view, but it has become obvious as the series has progressed that England are the altogether more complete, together and mentally stronger team. In that sense, the current Indian side has been something of an uncharacteristic world number one, highly dependant on the runscoring of their power-trio of Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman, lacking depth in bowling to the extent that one wonders where 20 wickets might come from, and backed up by outfielding and catching that could politely be described as mediocre. One always got the feeling that a batting failure would equate to match lost in English conditions, and so it has proved.
However, the main reason that India have been unable to apply pressure for prolonged periods of time is because this current England side is one in which any player is capable of making a contribution that make shift the dynamics of the match and take it away from the opposition. When India were 46 ahead with six first innings wickets still in the hutch at Trent Bridge, Stuart Broad's hat-trick not only ensured that the deficit was kept to 100 less than it should probably have been, it also seemed to knock whatever fight and belief that remained right out of the visitors. Ian Bell, who had previously been perceived as a player who only accumulated runs in winning situations, delivers a knock of 159 that nailed home the extent to which the pendulum had swung right in his side's favour. Chasing the best part of 500 to win, did anyone seriously expect a result other than an England victory?
Has anyone else noticed how the overwhelming majority of the breaks in this series have also fallen to England? Having insisted on LBW decisions not being part of the referral system, India found themselves on the end of one or two that they may well have reviewed and had overturned if the option had been available. There were also catches, such as the one that did for Laxman on Saturday, that they chose not to refer and clearly should have done. England are of course the vastly superior of the two teams in the fielding department, but then the manner in which nearly all of the less than routine takes in the series have fallen to one side also owes itself in part to a situational dynamic that became more frequent throughout the series and eventually the mood music to it.
The England side led on-field by Andrew Strauss and harnessed by Andy Flower off it is one that seeks to take the initiative and steal the play in all three areas of the game. They accumulate runs and then accelerate the scoring at the appropriate time to demoralise the oppositon with depth down the order and the game's most prolific wicketkeeper-batsman in Matt Prior. Bowling is a team effort, with the strengths of each member of the attack complimenting those of the others. Pressure is constant, with aggressive ground fielding turning a potential two into only a single and dropped catches met with a reaction of total shock, such is their rarity. The complete package is a game based on power, dominance and intimidating the opposition into mistakes through controlled aggression, much like that of the Australian side that reigned the test scene for a decade after their 1995 win in West Indies.
Is the current England line-up as good as Steve Waugh's Australia player-for-player? If not, how about our own 2005 side? In absolute terms it's difficult to tell, since the five-day game owes more in its character to the shortened form than it did even five years ago. What is a batting or bowling average worth now in the currency of the 1990s or early 2000s and vice versa? A racing certainty is that the typical lack of patience shown by most test batsmen in this era means that the pressure game with the ball in particular is easier to execute. Predisposed to play a positive shot to a higher percentage of deliveries faced, the average man at the crease is more likely to contribute to their own dismissal and perhaps needs to be 'thought out' less than may previously have been the case. It also makes 'sticking' batsmen like Alistair Cook and Jonathan Trott, men capable of not just occupying the crease but colonising it, worth their weight in gold.
The debates about teams from different eras are great fun in any sport and can go on for days if one wants them to. However, what is obvious to this bunny is that the current number one side in test cricket play in a fashion that is more like that of champions than the team they have brutally knocked off that particular perch. In that sense, this series has been a just reflection of the reality of the present, and England look far more likely to stay at the top than the side that preceded them. I've heard some commentators talk about how the next step is to become more successful in one day and T20 cricket, and to be honest the logic behind such thought escapes me. The pyjama game means nothing when set against the more complete and thorough examination of technical and mental strength that is a competitive test series.
We're pretty rubbish at quite a few sports and have unrealistic expectations at others. Cricket has in not-so-distant times fallen into either of these categories, and so those like this bunny who remember the collapses and embarrassments will enjoy these much happier moments while they last. Take care and I'll catch you soon...