How Strauss breathed life into side by suffocating Australians
Disciplined bowling deprived Ponting and Co of runs, while English batting exceeded dreams of even the most ardent fan
Four years ago, when he was a long way from being captain of England and a much shorter distance from being out of the team altogether, Andrew Strauss had a feeling. It was that the best way to compete in Australia was to suffocate the opposition batsmen.
Starve batsmen of runs and you are cutting off their very reason for being. Force them to take risks to try to recuperate and it can lead to termination. So it proved. Sounds simple, does it not, but as Strauss observed yesterday in the immediate aftermath of England's seismic victory, it depended on a crucial factor.
The accurate bowlers turned up in the nick of time, five or six of them all at once like buses on the way to Trafalgar Square, and England were able to convert Strauss's feeling into something much more substantial.
It has been lovely to watch these past weeks because dead-eye dick fast bowling, well controlled with a hint of movement here, a touch of bounce there, does precisely what Strauss envisaged all those years ago. It is permissible to wonder what might have occurred had the confluence of circumstances which brought him in to the job not taken place. Same old wayward trundlers presumably, both sides of the wicket merchants with a plan they could not execute.
If England got lucky in this department, though it should be known that they made their own luck over two years of careful management, the batting was almost too much to expect as an accompaniment. When Strauss thought of strangling the opposition he must have known that it is best done when that opposition is also facing the might of runs scored against them. It tends further to weaken resolve, as England have found to their cost down the years.
In the three matches they won in the Ashes series, England's first-innings scores were 620 for five declared, 513 and 644, the last their highest total in Australia. Not for 82 years, when the pitches were flatter and the Tests were timeless, had they made more than 600 twice in a series, never had they made above 500 four times, including the valiant rearguard 517 for one in Brisbane.
The batsmen, in their way, were as controlled as the bowlers. Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott at the top of the order are players who the rest could play round. It was also smart to watch. Never have England scored as many as nine hundreds in an Ashes series. Six of the top seven batsmen reached three figures, Cook three times and Trott twice.
And then there was the fielding. It beat all previous English fielding displays anywhere at any time into a cocked hat. They were alert, precise like the bowlers and they caught their catches. Wicketkeeper Matt Prior, once so derided, gave them their lead and he took 24 catches in the series, most of them straightforward, all of them gloved without fuss.
There will be a tendency to try to diminish the quality of England's great victory by traducing the standard of their opponents. It is all too easy, as one eminent Australian newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald, did yesterday to label the home side as The Worst XI to represent the country. True, they were not very good and they do not bear comparison with their recent forebears, but they were not allowed to be very good by England.
The tourists demonstrated that preparation and specialism in all areas do work. They paid attention to details that Australia did not seem to know existed. It was exhaustive and it was essential, for no matter how poor Australia turned out to be, had they been given an inch they would have taken a yard and then it could have been as messy as usual.
Australia, do not forget, contained three batsmen who have regularly inflicted such misery on England it might have been a specialist subject on Mastermind. But only Mike Hussey clicked, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke had paltry returns. Poor form, perhaps, but it was England who provoked that poor form.
For a few months, Australia will self-flagellate. England can indulge in much more healthy habits. Australia are not what they were, England have a real chance of being something. While ensuring that those who would try to minimise the victory do not have their way, it is also right to place it in context.
There are better sides than Australia out there at present and for England to confirm their undoubted advance they have to be beaten. But the way Strauss and the coach Andy Flower talk, there is no room for dwelling on present glories, only to imagine future ones. When the dream fades it is time to quit, as Paul Collingwood has so eloquently exhibited by now withdrawing from Test cricket, partly because for him personally there is little else to achieve.
England's next mission is to become the number one side in the world. They are at three now with Australia down to five. India and South Africa stand in England's way with the points table reading 128, 117 and 115.
To narrow that gap, England must beat India, who are suddenly in love with Test cricket again although they continue to worship at the altar of Twenty20, at home this summer.
Though it may be eminently possible at home, it is a tall order. But seven weeks ago beating Australia in Australia was the tallest order of all and yesterday England completed their third innings victory going away. It was bloody marvellous.
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