James Lawton: At last, a team who truly live up to nation's expectations

Cricketers' commitment and excellence put their footballing cousins to shame
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The Independent Online

There may be danger in overstating the depth of England's Ashes achievements but if ever a nation was given such a temptation it is surely this one – and not least because of what happened in the World Cup in South Africa last summer.

Then, some of the best rewarded professional sportsmen on earth complained of a killing boredom in the breaks between the parody of front-line, world-class football they produced whenever they emerged, surly in their sense of terrible victimhood, from the five-star hell they had been forced to inhabit in a remote corner of the high veld.

For a timely reminder of the vertiginous chasm between the success of the cricketers and the appalling failure of their football cousins we can be grateful to Brian Moore, the former England hooker with whom down the years one has, frankly, not exactly enjoyed the warmest of relations. However, it has never been a hardship recognising his competitive instincts – no more than admiration for his wrenchingly honest William Hill Sports Book of the Year autobiography.

Moore produced his bracing point of reference the other night on television after walking away with a Celebrity Mastermind trophy. He said that the attitude of the footballers was beyond reason and adult understanding – and who could argue?

He wondered how you could be bored in the middle of the greatest challenge of your professional life.

As England's cricketers moved across Australia, providing a passable imitation of Sherman's scorched earth march to the sea, there was certainly no hint of complacency and still less ennui. They got the wounds that made them think in Perth and that was more than enough to provoke new levels of professional excellence.

Now there is an undercurrent of scepticism about future prospects based on the general feebleness of the Australian effort. That the Aussies had declined more sharply than most had imagined, was evident soon enough. It was suggested strongly in the first Test in Brisbane, confirmed, utterly, in Adelaide, but this is no reason to hold back praise for the strength of the English effort.

Australia, no doubt, had been weakened by various factors, including dimwitted selection policies and a culture of celebrity and easy financial rewards which has worried most of the old guard who did so much to create unprecedented success. But most enfeebling of all was the sheer strength of the English performance.

Those pockets of resistance that the Aussies managed to produce were quite ruthlessly put to the sword, most impressively by Alastair Cook and Jimmy Anderson. There was no argument about Cook's right to the Player of the Series award after his mammoth run-hoarding, but Jimmy Anderson could hardly have run him closer.

Anderson's bowling was so often masterful. He oozed competitive authority and needle. It meant that the brilliant leadership of Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower had towering assets, a bedrock of runs and the cutting edge to bring home the record-shattering three innings victories.

Yet if Cook and Anderson were the stars, the supporting cast had no shortage of jewels: Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Strauss and Ian Bell produced knocks of the highest quality. Matt Prior scored a century and behind the stumps provided the great maw into which the English bowlers dispatched so many Australian victims.

When Prior slapped his gloves together it must have sounded to Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke like the creak of Madame Guillotine.

Now England face their defining challenge, the high ground occupied by the world's top two Test nations, India and South Africa. They accept the gauntlet and they resolve to grow stronger and more resilient.

In doing so they are a credit to themselves – and a suitably grateful nation.