England edging closer to top of world as big test dawns
Only long-term success will give Strauss's men the elevated standing they crave
England today begin the most arduous part of their quest for global domination. It is not beyond them – indeed it is on the strong side of possible – but only the equation that lends clarity to their task is straightforward.
To become the number one ranked Test side in the world for the first time, they must beat India, the present champions, by two clear matches in the series of four to be played in the next five weeks. The first of those, the 2,000th Test match of all, starts this morning at Lord's.
It is fitting in every way that the world's most famous ground should be the stage for this enthralling encounter. The match is also the 100th Test between the teams and Sachin Tendulkar, the most illustrious batsman of his generation, has the opportunity to become the first player to score 100 hundreds in international matches.
For Andrew Strauss, England's captain, these may be significant milestones but they pale in comparison with what he has in mind for his team. This match, and the three which follow in the next five weeks, form only part of a grand plan.
"Our ultimate goal over the long term is not to be the side that is number one in the rankings," said Strauss. "It is to be the side that everyone generally agrees is the number one side in the world. That's our long-term goal and nothing changes whether we win or lose this series."
He was not as assertive as, say, Auric Goldfinger, in his desire to conquer the world but there is no doubting that Strauss and England's coach, Andy Flower, have deadly serious intent. "I still think there are things we can improve on, so in that sense we're not the finished article," said Strauss.
"To be number one is relative to what other sides are doing and I don't think there has been a side that has been better than us after our cricket in the last two years. We have won seven out of eight series and drawn one. But this is a new challenge for us."
England's first target must be to win the series by any margin. They have not defeated India since 1996 when they prevailed 1-0 at home. In the five series since, India have won three, including the last two both home and away, with two drawn.
Under MS Dhoni and a cast of seasoned experts, India have cast off their previous defects away from the comforts of the subcontinent. But England too have made enormous strides under Strauss and Flower, who have been smart enough to realise that last winter's epic Ashes victory, when they won three matches by an innings, was the start of something, not the end.
Both sides have powerful batting and if India's is the more celebrated England's loses nothing by comparison on the form of the last six months. England have a decided edge in the bowling which may clinch the deal by the end of August.
The decision on England's 11th man had already been made by lunchtime yesterday and though Strauss, as usual, was not telling, all the apparently informed gossip points to Stuart Broad keeping his place at the expense of Tim Bresnan. It would hardly be a selection based on recent Test form because Broad has temporarily mislaid the faculty to take wickets and Bresnan came of age as a Test bowler in the last two matches of the Ashes series when he took 11 wickets, as many as his rival has taken in his last six.
Some confusion, probably in his own mind as much as anywhere else, has arisen about Broad's role. David Saker, England's bowling coach, described him as the side's enforcer a few weeks ago. It was a label lapped up by the press and while Broad has seemed to try to live up to it since, Flower and Strauss have tried to play it down.
Strauss said: "He is there to bang out a length consistently and work in conjunction with the other bowlers as a group to take wickets. One aspect to his game that I think gives him a little bit of an edge is that he has got a very good bouncer and he can make life difficult for batsmen with the short ball.
"That does not mean that he enforces all the time. It just means that occasionally there will be spells when he will go short. The majority of the time he is no different from any other bowler. You can argue about the semantics as much as you like. The key to it is to go out there and perform. As a bowler your job is to go out there and take wickets."
Which Broad, temporarily at least, is not doing. Whereas Strauss could say of the rival: "Tim Bresnan has answered every question that has been asked of him in his career. He was fantastic in Australia, he has done very well in one-day cricket.
"He is improving all the time as his confidence grows. He definitely adds something to squad and he would definitely add something to the side if he plays." As would, he added hastily, Jimmy Anderson, Broad, Chris Tremlett or anybody else.
India have a discouraging record at Lord's and, although they won the series in England in 2007, it might have turned out differently. Had Sree Sreesanth been given out lbw, when he looked stone dead, with his side nine wickets down in the first Test, England would have gone one up.
If something similar were to happen this time there would be ramifications because all could be resolved by the decision review system. But there is no DRS for lbws at India's insistence.
Contentious as that is, England have the capacity to take care of business before it comes to that, and if the pitch offers something, they can take a precious lead to Nottingham next week. The stop after that may be the world.
The Independent's experts predict the outcome of the series
James Lawton, Chief Sports Writer
Give or take a little time for Indian adjustment, the investment has to be in superior class. England are strong with the ball, especially with a little help from patriotic groundsmen, but India are drenched in quality. They have a group of working legends, among whom Little Master Sachin Tendulkar pursues a first century at Lord's. The suspicion is England come up short – India 2-1.
Stephen Brenkley, Cricket Correspondent
India have not got where they are today by being soft touches. Their batting order speaks for itself and Sachin Tendulkar is only the half of it. But England have batsmen in breathtaking form and bowlers of admirable control operating at home. It may not quite be enough to dislodge India from top place but England at least 2-1.
Matthew Hoggard, columnist and former England bowler
It looks almost too close to call, with the outcome quite possibly depending on overhead and pitch conditions. No one can do anything about the weather but I firmly believe home advantage ought to mean just that and England should be playing on green, seaming wickets. But we'll see. I expect it to be 1-0 to England, or possibly 1-1.
Angus Fraser, former England bowler and Cricket Correspondent for The Independent
India possess several of the most gifted players in the world but I question whether three days' cricket in Taunton is enough preparation for what looks like being traditional English conditions. With the weather set to be overcast the tourists could be out of the series by the time they leave Trent Bridge in under two weeks' time. England to win 2-1.
David Lloyd, cricket writer
The importance of preparation was underlined in Australia last winter, with England's success being built on a perfect warm-up period. Strauss's team are primed and ready for this top-of-the-table Test clash, while India, having arrived here little more than a week ago, and having played just one game, can only hope to hit the ground running. England 2-0.
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