England stand on the verge of history. In the next two months, if they play as well as we think they can, they will become the world's top-ranked Test nation for the first time.
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To do this they must depose the present No 1, India, a team of talent and riches in almost equal abundance. Indeed, England have to win the four-match series that starts at Lord's on Thursday by two clear matches to attain the official status.
It is not beyond them, but it will demand that they not only revisit their form in Australia during last winter but find something else besides. India are an ageing side. Their triumvirate of batting legends – Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman – are all now nearer 40 than 30, Zaheer Khan, their champion left-arm swing bowler, is 33 this year and thus entering a fast bowler's dotage.
Age should not be mistaken for infirmity, and perhaps quite the opposite. Tendulkar at 38 has revised his game in the past two years – the twinkle-toed artist of yore has given way to something more stoic– but has increased his effectiveness.
Laxman, too, at 36, has discovered an efficiency that was not always present in his sublime youth. Dravid's work ethic and implacable resolve at the crease remains one of the marvels of the age. As for the dangerous Zaheer, he has learned how to pace himself for the big occasion (in the recent World Cup final, for instance, his first three overs were maidens).
The measure of England's task can be gauged by the fact that they have won only one of the past seven series between the sides. That was all of 15 years ago, when an improbable attack of Chris Lewis, Dominic Cork and Alan Mullally, with RonnieIrani and Min Patel in support, managed to squeeze a solitary win at Edgbaston.
England are a much, much better side now, and it is tempting to suggest that if that lot could do it this bunch of bowlers definitelycan. In Jimmy Anderson and Chris Tremlett, England have two fast bowlers at the peak of their powers, in Graeme Swann they havethe best spinner operating in the world today.
There are two mild causes for concern. England will at least start the series with a four-man bowling attack, a choice which has served them well enough for almost two years (if they have to revert to five later on it means something has gone badly wrong).
But with India's batting line-up, it might take five bowlers to take 20 wickets. In these circumstances it aggravates the other concern – the identity of the fourth bowler and third seamer.
England seem intent on keeping faith with Stuart Broad when rat-ional evidence suggests that it might be time to replace him with Tim Bresnan. This is a matterof form, not class. Nobody would suggest that Broad will have anything other than a careerof high achievement, but for the moment it is not happening for him. Bresnan has demonstrated that he is a bowler who makes things happen.
Some confusion has arisen over Broad's role in the side. England's captain, Andrew Strauss, has denied that Broad is the enforcer, though since his first resort seems to be the bouncer it would seem the bowler thinks differently. If he is confused it may be time to give him a rest.
England's batting looks full ofruns, though Strauss could do with scoring a few early on. The longer his lean run continues, the more it will affect his powers of decision-making. Strauss has been nothing but good news as England captain, but batsmen need runs and he is not making enough of them.
"I think home advantage counts for quite a lot," Strauss said. "Our form over the last two years has been strong and therefore we have got quite a lot of latent confidence that we can win from any situation in the game. But they are not going to be easy games.
"There are going to be important periods of play, whether it is one session or a half-hour, that might be the difference between winning and losing the series."
Given the status of these sides at present, it is fitting that the opening match of the series should be the 2,000th Test. The International Cricket Council are making it a cause for celebration. They made no fuss at all for the 1,000th, which was between Pakistan and New Zealand in Hyderabad.
Purists might argue that thisis not actually the 2,000th Test. The list includes the game between the Rest of the World against Australia in 2005, which was given the official status of a Test without having the support of anybody with a proper interest in the welfare of Test cricket.The 2,000th Test will in fact take place at Trent Bridge next week.
Before business begins in earnest, Strauss paid tribute to two of his opponents in this series, Tendulkar and the tourists' new coach, Duncan Fletcher. Of the latter, who thisweek will oversee his 100th Test match as a coach, Strauss said: "He made me aware of what Test cricketactually entailed.
"He is a great father-figure, DuncanFletcher, he has been there, done it all, seen it all, and once he worked with you for a while it was very hard not to be very loyal to him as a bloke."
And for the Little Master he provided a greater encomium. "I have had a few chats with him over the years. He is the ultimate ambassador for the game, very humble, very politeand he enjoys talking about the game. He is obviously still in love with the game of cricket and that's what drives him on." But England will not be cowed by him and may even try to take advantage of the fact that Tendulkar needs one more hundred to complete 100 international centuries.
"It would be a fantastic way for him to reach 100 hundreds," Strauss said. "It would be a bit of a fairy tale for him, but I am not a big fan of those sort of fairy tales to be honest with you. I prefer our own fairy tales."
England can write one and win the series.
The key battles
Ian Bell v Sachin Tendulkar
The original little master versus the English version. The comparison is not as odious as it might seem. This series could be a reaffirmation of Tendulkar's greatness or a confirmation of Bell's.
Graeme Swann v Harbhajan Singh
Once Harbhajan was the most feared off-spinner in the world. No longer. The mantle has passed to the endlessly thoughtful, competitive Swann. Harbhajan, once a scourge, has lost the knack of taking Test wickets. In the second innings of this series, Swann could clinch the matter.
Andy Flower v Duncan Fletcher
Zimbabweans both, but there the comparison ends. Both are studious, but where one is wary and mistrustful, the other is warm and candid. Fletcher's coaching prowess is well known, Flower's has been astonishing. The younger man may shave this.
Jimmy Anderson v Zaheer Khan
Both supreme examples of learning their craft and knowing when to do it is what counts. Zaheer may be the best pound-for-pound occasional bowler around, but Anderson's mastery of swing is similar and his advice to others may be irreplaceable.
Andrew Strauss v Mahendra Singh Dhoni
In his bearing and approach, Dhoni shows all the signs of being one oflife's natural leaders, and his teamswin. Strauss commands respect for different reasons: his commondecency and understated approach. Dhoni has an eye for the main chance, as his commercial deals show. Impossible to sit in judgement, but it will be fascinating.
India squad and itinerary
Mahendra Singh Dhoni (capt) 30/57
Rahul Dravid 38/153
Gautam Gambhir 29/38
Zaheer Khan 32/78
Praveen Kumar 24/3
VVS Laxman 36/123
Amit Mishra 28/11
Abhinav Mukund 21/3
Munaf Patel 28/13
Suresh Raina 24/11
Wriddhiman Saha 26/1
Virender Sehwag 32/87
Ishant Sharma 22/34
Harbhajan Singh 31/96
Yuvraj Singh 29/34
Sree Sreesanth 28/24
Sachin Tendulkar 38/177
21-25 July First Test, Lord's
29 July-2 August Second Test, Trent Bridge
10-14 August Third Test, Edgbaston
18-22 August Fourth Test, The OvalReuse content