The Oval has a special place in Indian cricket history. Those of my vintage will recall being glued to BBC Radio’s Test Match Special broadcast in 1971 when Bhagwat Chandrasekhar (he took six wickets for 38 runs) had Ray Illingworth’s England team in a tailspin and a famous victory—the first-ever in England— came into being.
Rankings and ratings did not exist in the sport then, but looking back, I reckon Ajit Wadekar’s team could justifiably have claimed to be world champions. A few weeks earlier, they had beaten the West Indies in West Indies and England were fresh from an Ashes triumph. It was stellar, stirring stuff that chuffed up an entire nation with pride.
M.S. Dhoni’s beleaguered, injured, out-of-form platoon which trooped into London a few days ago after the walloping in Birmingham might draw sustenance from the past. In 1971, too, nobody gave Wadekar’s team a hope in hell of winning. The current series is lost, of course, but there is still a Test to be played—and won.
In fact, there is more than just small consolation at stake in this Test—and I am not even going into individual achievements such as Sachin Tendulkar’s (still) impending 100th international century. A defeat this time would mean India slipping to No. 3 in the rankings, which is as undesirable as a whitewash, and utterly humiliating. A victory at the Oval would keep the team pegged at No. 2, and strong claimants to regain the No.1 slot.
Winning streak: (top) James Anderson has brooked little opposition Tim (Hales/AP); and Andrew Strauss is the clear front-runner for captaincy honours (Philip Brown/Reuters).
While this sounds abstruse, international sport—and especially Test cricket—is played in a time-space continuum, so to speak. One thing leads to another, so while there is a beginning, there is no end. What this also means is that India are currently at an inflection point from where they could get into a free fall and plunge further, or rediscover their form and climb up again.
England’s progress since 2005 plays out such a scenario interestingly. In fact, with so much written, said and condemned about India’s bleak performances this season, it is not just overdue but also just that England’s superiority be recognized for what it is: excellence all round—in batting, bowling and fielding.
But this has not come fortuitously, without sustained performances and a craving for excellence despite some ups and downs. After beating Ricky Ponting’s team in 2005—and thereby suggesting that they were potential world champions—England lost 0-5 in the return Ashes series, lost 0-1 to India in 2007 and again 0-1 to India in late 2008.
Since then, however, England have not lost a series. Indeed, neither had India till this current, much-hyped tour became a disaster. In this period, both Andrew Strauss and Dhoni took over the captaincy of their respective teams. They have had spectacular careers running parallel to each other till India’s ageing, unfit and ill-prepared team was exposed, leaving Strauss the clear front-runner in the captaincy honours.
Shane Warne, a trenchant critic of English cricket not too long back, believes that Strauss’ side could become even better than the Australian sides he played for in the first few years of this millennium. This is high praise. Other former players like Geoffrey Boycott say this England side could even match Clive Lloyd’s great West Indies team of the 1970s and 1980s.
This is lavish praise and not entirely fanciful. So dominant have England been in this series that India have been made to look mediocre. The much-vaunted batting line-up boasting the likes of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman, Yuvraj Singh/Suresh Raina and Dhoni has been reduced to scratching and pottering for survival. The already weak bowling has been flogged into total submission. The fielding has remained error-prone, but England’s fielders have atoned by hitting back with renewed energy.
So just how good is this England team? Some figures are telling. They have won six of the last nine Tests, four of these by an innings. This is an extraordinary performance by any yardstick, for what it shows is excellence in terms of skill, as also a ruthless desire to win.
A clutch of high-quality players is obviously a huge advantage. Alistair Cook, who narrowly missed a triple century at Edgbaston, Birmingham, may not be the most attractive batsman to watch, but his prolific run-making marks him out as special. Only 26, he has 19 Test centuries and is already being touted as the player most likely to go after Tendulkar’s record.
Fielders come good: England players celebrate the fall of another Indian wicket during the third Test at Birmingham. Philip Brown/Reuters
Jonathan Trott, a late bloomer though he may be, is another batsman whose stature grows with every match. His form has been Bradmanesque, to use a cliché that has spelt doom for many batsmen in the last 60 years, but in the last three years, it has shown no signs of waning. Trott is not flamboyant but he is solidly, consistently good, which allows players like Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Eoin Morgan to play as they will.
Pietersen, the braggart, might yet be the king of batting he promised to be a few years ago; Bell is as stylish as he is aggressive, and Morgan has an Irish effervescence about him that is of great value at No. 6.
The biggest advantage for England over other teams, however, is the presence of three all-rounders of high quality who are improving by the day. Matthew Prior has dislodged Dhoni as the best wicketkeeper-batsman in the game, Stuart Broad has come back from the brink of premature demise to become the leading wicket-taker and smash-hit lower-order batsman while Timothy Bresnan—lucky to play at all in this series—may become an all-rounder in the Ian Botham class.
Of course, to win matches, bowlers have to take 20 wickets and England now have bowlers who are doing this more consistently than any other team. James Anderson is the spearhead, and his late swing has brooked little opposition in the past year or so. Broad, Christopher Tremlett, Bresnan, Steven Finn and Graham Onions reflect the high-quality depth and breadth of pace bowling in England; and while Graeme Swann has struggled for wickets in this series, nobody doubts that he is the world’s leading spinner today.
If a captain is as good as his team, it is also a truism that a good team can be made into a great one by a strong leader. Strauss is doughty and courageous as a batsman and deeply ambitious as a captain. Some reckon he is England’s most ruthless—not in a malicious sense—leader on a cricket field since Douglas Jardine in the early 1930s. If he can sustain this run of successes, I reckon he will be the best England have had, and perhaps also one of the greatest in the history of the game.
That, however, awaits ratification. England have done everything right this year, but need to do it for a few years more to be regarded as one of the greatest teams in the annals of the game. In this, there are lessons for Strauss and Co. to be learnt from India: Reaching the top is far easier than remaining there for any length of time.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters. He is writing weekly during the course of the series from England.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org