/ 19 August 2011

Victory at long last

There is still another match to go in the series, so the precise calculations and official confirmation must wait. But as from now England are indisputably the number one ranked side in the world. Former England coach Duncan Fletcher, who oversaw the beginning of the reformation that led to the top, is now the man who has sat stony-faced on the balcony of the visitors’ dressing room as his former charges have dismantled his current brood of superstars.

England cannot have climbed the final path to the summit in finer style, humiliating the Australians in their backyard last year and now dismantling India at home. It has been relentless, uncompromising, brutal at times and, for gob-smacked England supporters of long standing, used to the farcical selection policies and inept performances of the last decades of the previous millennium, it has been utterly and unbelievably compelling.

Andrew Strauss and his team can be proud of what they have achieved, success based not on fancy individuality that can often prove a distraction but on blue-collar values of hard work, skills, team ethic, dedication and application. They enjoy their personal success, but more than that they revel in that of their colleagues. The moment has been hard-earned and they deserve to celebrate accordingly.

Yet, before the open-top buses are brought from the garage and the gongs polished, a sense of perspective is needed. England’s position, although a reflection of the manner in which they have played their cricket, also tells a story of a decline in the standard at the top, where, for three decades, first West Indies then Australia set the standard by which all teams are measured.

England’s current points ranking — which will change upwards at the end of the series — is 117, a point behind South Africa, which is ranked second to India. Five years ago England’s ranking was two points higher and they were in second place.

It mattered not who was second then because it was never a topic of conversation. Now the rankings are in a state of flux and they will very likely remain so for 18 months to two years. As the Indian opener, Gautam Gambhir, remarked recently: “Getting to number one is the easy part. Staying there is more difficult.”

But let’s begin at the beginning, or rather, beginnings, because the main stream of progress — by no means steady — contains a number of tributaries. There have been two empathetic chairs of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) Lord Ian MacLaurin and Giles Clarke, businessmen who understood that cricket in England right down to the very bottom levels was predicated on the success of the senior England team and therefore decided to resource it at a level undreamed of in previous years.

There have been three head coaches — Fletcher and Andy Flower — either side of the relatively brief tenure of Peter Moores. The turmoil created by the friction between the latter and then-captain Kevin Pietersen was influential in Moores’s introduction of some key personnel, not least the fielding coach, Richard Halsall, and Flower as batting coach. And there have been five captains Nasser Hussain, Michael Vaughan, Andrew Flintoff, Pietersen and Strauss. Each of them, even Flintoff, has made a significant impact.

The catalyst came on August 22 1999. England had just suffered an 83-run defeat by New Zealand in the final Test, which gave the tourists the series. Hussain, in charge for the first time, stood on the balcony at The Oval and listened to the boos of the crowd, in the knowledge that in light of the official rankings, at any rate, his was the worst international team of them all.

That winter, for the tour of South Africa, he met Fletcher for the first time and between them — Hussain the firebrand, the coach a shrewd pragmatist with a management model — they began the process of dragging the team up by their bootstraps. Central contracts were introduced in 2000 by MacLaurin in response to the criticism that the England team was little more than an ad hoc group of county cricketers brought together for the occasional match.

There was little or no preparation. For the first time those who ran the England team had control over those who played. Hussain cared neither for niceties nor popularity, but he gained immense respect: first he and Fletcher taught England how not to lose and then they taught them how to win. Four successive series were won, most notably at home against West Indies, a first such triumph in 31 years, and away to Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the last two representing astounding achievements to rank with England’s finest.

In 2004 Hussain, coming to the end of his career, handed over to Vaughan. More freewheeling, he allowed his side more space and began to see the benefits — there was a series of six successive series wins, starting with a historic success in the Caribbean and including eight Test victories on the bounce, a sequence unheard of for 75 years. It culminated in 2005 in what must still rank as England’s greatest achievement — when they beat a magnificent Australian team, without equivocation or rankings the finest cricket team on Earth.

If the celebrations were excessive, the success was transient. The side had already started to fragment during the Ashes series and that process continued, with Vaughan’s knee keeping him out and Marcus Trescothick’s dreadful illness starting to manifest itself. Fletcher made Flintoff captain, a task he managed well enough in India but with disastrous consequences in Australia the following winter, when England’s stock plummeted faster than the Dow Jones in a banking crisis. Fletcher’s employers commissioned the Schofield report and its recommendations centred, among other things, on preparation.

By the end of the 2007 World Cup Fletcher was gone, to be replaced by Moores. It was an appointment from within the ECB elite coaching programme instigated by Fletcher. By now Vaughan’s injury was proving terminal to his career and he was replaced by Pietersen, who, after a fractious relationship with Moores, took it on himself to represent player resentment to the board. A consequence of that was the removal not just of Moores but of Pietersen as well. They were replaced by Flower, although only on a temporary basis at that stage, and Strauss.

For this pair, Jamaica in February 2009 was the turning point. Bowled out humiliatingly for 51, something which ultimately led to the loss of the series to West Indies and to fifth place in the rankings, they decided that enough was enough. Ian Bell was made a scapegoat, a move that, with time, proved key to his development as a batsman of world class, and a renewed focus on team development was instigated.

Go to any England match now and you will find the support staff on the ground by 8.30am, setting out their stalls. When, last week, John Humphrys on the Today show asked Graham Gooch whether the Edgbaston Test would go ahead in light of the riots in Birmingham, the batting coach was already in the nets. We know to what heroics that led.

Since Flower’s appointment on a full-time basis the rise has been inexorable. Of nine series since then, eight have been won and one, in South Africa, drawn. Now the side that had claimed bragging rights as the world’s best have not just been beaten, but humiliated. And from it all, those countries with ambition to better themselves in Test cricket are studying the England model and learning. That has never happened before and there can be no greater tribute than that. —