Five captains, 78 players and three coaches: England's long road to No 1...

They were rock bottom in '99 but now Andrew Strauss's team are top of the world. By Stephen Brenkley

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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.

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. 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.

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 it could not go on as it had.

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. Crucially, in the summer of 2000, England introduced a system of central contracts. 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.

Hussain knew when to go too and after quitting the captaincy, his pride and joy, in 2003, he quit as a player the following year. Under Michael 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.

Fletcher began to mistake loyalty for assiduous selection, he was never comfortable with Andrew Flintoff as captain and England lost the Ashes 5-0 in Australia. Flintoff had been preferred to Andrew 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. 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 keeper-batsman Andy Flower to be the acting coach. Never can such triumph have come from such adversity. Strauss had assumed his chance was gone and Flower had assumed that he would have to wait a long time for such an opportunity. But what a pairing they have been.

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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