The age when English cricket was regarded as a joke has been banished for ever. In looking forward yesterday to the fourth Test as captain of the newly installed No 1 team in the world, Andrew Strauss said: "English cricket's been through a long evolutionary cycle. The days of it being kind of a laughing stock have gone, hopefully for good, for all sorts of reasons. The challenge for us all is to make sure that continues."
Strauss now presides over a side that, in a little more than two years, he has led from being the fifth-ranked Test team – below mid-table in cricketing terms – to the top of the heap. There, England intend to stay. But their initial task is to defeat India at The Oval in the match starting today and secure a 4-0 series victory, a result almost beyond contemplation a month ago.
With Jimmy Anderson, the leader of their attack who has taken 18 wickets in the series, almost certain to play, having recovered from a quadriceps injury, England should be unchanged from the side that secured a 3-0 series lead in Birmingham on Saturday.
India arrived in this country as the top-ranked side, a status they had retained since late 2008. To overtake them (and South Africa, who were in second place at the time) England had to win by two clear matches. They have done so in the most clinical and resolute of fashions.
Little that has happened in the first three matches, culminating in England's victory by an innings and 242 runs at Edgbaston, suggests that India can respond now. But as their captain M S Dhoni – who had the nation at his feet when India won the World Cup two months ago – insists, there seems no intention of invoking sweeping change.
"The past two years have been great," he said. "We have to look to the future as well but, at the same time, it's important not to panic. Some of the best sides have pushed the panic button too soon. It's just a phase we're going through.
"It's sport at the end of the day. You go through tough times. It's always the challenges that make life interesting." Dhoni, of course, is well aware that to millions of his compatriots, cricket is not mere sport.
In the continuing absence of fast bowler Zaheer Khan, it is difficult to see how India can take the 20 wickets necessary to win. That has happened to England only five times in the past 35 matches. Since Strauss and coach Andy Flower took over the side, England have won 19 of 30 Tests. Throughout the 1980s they won 20 from 104 and in the 1990s 26 from 104.
Strauss said: "Since the introduction of central contracts in 2000, the rate of improvement has gone up significantly. Not just our play on the park but the whole structure and set-up has improved dramatically. Hopefully, people watching on television, it will either make them want to play cricket more than they did in the past or make them want to be better cricketers than they would otherwise be. There was a feeling that we weren't getting the best out of our players because we've always had very good players in England, there's no doubt about that."
Number one they may be but Dhoni recognised, as England themselves do, that they remain a work in progress. "I have played against many sides which have been equally good, South Africa and Australia are very good sides," he said. "I would rather keep my judgement on whether they are the best side."
But India have not been whitewashed in a series of three matches or more since Australia, amid a sequence of 16 consecutive wins, defeated them 3-0 more than a decade ago. By Monday, Dhoni may consider revising his verdict.Reuse content