James Lawton: A restless ambition marks this great England side out from their predecessors
The most unmistakable sign of the tourists' total domination has been, the blip in Perth aside, a refusal to rest on their laurels
Friday 07 January 2011
Of all the achievements England sought to underline with another slaughter of what used to be Australian cricket in Sydney there is no doubt about the greatest of them.
It is their embrace of competitive humility. It is the sweet acceptance that if you want to be the best in the world – which is an ambition reasonably provoked if not confirmed by their deeds Down Under in the last few weeks – you have to know the difference between hubris and bone-deep satisfaction.
You have to remember at all times that great sportsmen never lose sight of the fact that they are only as good as their last innings or round or race.
England did this at Perth after their evisceration of Australia in Adelaide in the second Test but what might have been a crisis, a lurch back into the old days of win and lose, boom and bust, became something quite different.
It was, with plenty of time and nerve and a huge advantage in basic talent on their side, an opportunity to make the vital reassessments which in the past have so often been ignored – and which four years ago led directly to one of the greatest humiliations in the history of English sport.
The 5-0 whitewash of 2006-07 was quite different from what in some ways has been an equally profound series of revenge exacted by England. Back then the disparity of talent was not so great; if Australia had the last of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist, England still possessed Freddie Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen, the key figures of Ashes victory in 2005, and Paul Collingwood at his most combative.
The difference was that Australia played like men, defiantly and proudly, while England, right from the start in Brisbane, became parodies of the heroes who had their triumphal parade through the West End and the fall-about at Downing Street.
This time around there has been – apart from Pietersen's occasional lapse into old vanities – scarcely a breath of such immaturity.
Perth was not so much a wake-up call as a missile strike.
Some, who had plainly not been paying attention when England dominated all aspects of the Tests in Brisbane and Adelaide, saw this as an explosion of a myth that the hosts had regressed terribly. It was, it should have been known then and now without a scintilla of doubt, nothing of the sort.
It was a setback clearly within the power of England, under the superbly balanced leadership of captain Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower, to make good, both by exploiting the intrinsic weakness of the Australian squad and re-exerting their much superior ability.
This, of course, doesn't mean that England are sure-fire candidates to supplant India and South Africa at the top of the Test rankings, but then anything less than a serious pursuit of the goal would be a betrayal of the team's recent progress.
Yes, we know there has been a fault line. It appeared at the Wanderers in Johannesburg last January, briefly against Pakistan in the summer, and was present again at the Waca.
However, the response on this occasion has been massively convincing. The margins between the teams have become pitiful, from the career death agonies of the great Ricky Ponting, the uncertainties of a once accomplished batsman Michael Clarke and the extraordinary, haunting fragility of Mitchell Johnson.
No putative cricketing superstar ever rivalled Johnson in commuting so regularly between heaven and hell. In Brisbane to ask him a question felt like an unforgivable intrusion into private grief. Before the first Test he told me that he had never felt so confident. His subsequent performance at The Gabba was so bad, at the bowling and batting creases and in the field, it would be an act of cruelty to dredge up the figures.
He travelled to Adelaide on the same plane as his team-mates but in the company of his beautiful girlfriend – and still managed to look the loneliest man in a vast and thinly populated country.
He was kept back from the trenches in Adelaide, then re-emerged with dramatic effectiveness in Perth. In Melbourne and Sydney he has walked the line between triumph and disaster so persistently there have been times, surely, when the squeamish have been obliged to look away.
By comparison England's dressing room has been inhabited by men who have seemed entirely sure of themselves: at no time have Cook, Strauss, Trott, Pietersen, Bell, Prior, Broad before his tour-ending injury, Swann, Anderson, Tremlett, Finn and Bresnan looked other then men supremely confident that they could deal with any passing inconveniences of form or circumstance.
Even Collingwood, for whom batting had become a nightmare, made sublime slip catches, took Mike Hussey's wicket with a gentle seamer before making one of the classiest of exits from big-time sport. It also happened that in the timing of his resignation the man from Durham made maybe the most telling point about the current difference between England and Australia. He acknowledged something that is usually forced upon grateful selectors: an understanding that it was time for a vital piece of re-seeding of a team that had otherwise rarely looked so strong.
There was a time when this was an article of Australian faith – and the prime reason why they ruled the world for so long. But Australia grew smug and negligent and the result is shown in the ruins of their game. Maybe the likes of Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith will raise the banner again some time soon, but it is not something you want to bet on too eagerly.
Certainly not in the shadow of an England who have so plainly moved into a superior league.
This was, surely, a good enough reason to make a midnight toast – one that saluted not just magnificent performance but something quite as valuable. It was that understanding that if you want to be truly great the job is never done.
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