* This piece was originally published on Cricinfo in 2011, when England had attained the number 1 test ranking. It has been republished here in honour of the English visit to New Zealand, and also to reflect on a team that didn’t quite hold onto their potential for greatness.
England are the deserving world leaders of test cricket. Such a simple sentence, but one that has been uttered so infrequently in the wake of their demolition of India. Why is this? Perhaps it has something to do with the way this England side are seen to be, as Andrew Miller put it “ruthlessly competent“. For some reason, this appears to be something of a denigration as well as a plaudit, to be competent implies that a spark of genius or greatness is missing.
England’s bowlers put the ball in the right areas, nick batsmen out in the slips and trap them LBW, without creating extraordinary moments or unplayable deliveries. Their batsmen play solid, percentage cricket, without being the swashbuckling adventurers seen in recent years in India’s team. The hallmark of England’s batting is the flick to midwicket for a single. But what is wrong with this?
There is a sense among cricket commentators that there is something unworthy about a No. 1 side being solid and dependable, at the expense of being supremely and unpredictably talented. We like to think of Test cricket as being the ultimate long-form sport, yet the heroes of the game are those who turn a match in 20 minutes of magic. Sehwag scoring a century before lunch. Steyn ripping out the top order. This is absolutely not what cricket is really about, something that this England side has recognised. When we think of the last great Australian side, the first name to come to mind is Shane Warne, the bowler who has been hit for the most sixes in Test cricket, but who also had the potential to win any game on the fifth day.
The men who deserve the credit from that team though are the likes of Steve Waugh or Glenn McGrath, the real engines of that winning side. McGrath would put the ball on the right spot for days on end. Waugh would square his jaw and will himself through adversity. In short, they were winners. This England team is a side full of winners. They deserve to be No. 1 because they understand exactly what winning in the longest sport entails.
The reason India looked so abject in this series was simple, England had the firmer hand and steelier gaze. Let’s not forget, this Indian side contained players who were truly spectacular, players who have a reputation for explosive brilliance. However, they couldn’t handle the pressure of a side who came at them relentlessly day after day.
India worked hard on day 1 of the first Test, and so did England. With Zaheer, Sharma, and Kumar all bowling well, the series appeared to be reasonably even. It was an illusion. England showed straight away why they would not lose. They gritted their way through a tough day, and backed up quickly enough to wrench the game out of India’s grasp over the next few days. Much has been made of India’s ability to bounce back, but the series was in truth already over.
The No. 1 Test side should be the team which takes the longest amount of pressure before buckling. Without a doubt, the team that best fits this bill is currently England. English fans would do well to enjoy this period, it can’t last forever. In the meantime though, cricket fans worldwide should salute a team who define test cricket, through their grit, resolve and perseverance.