On his way to six major titles, Sir Nick Faldo reflected that the really tricky business was not getting to the top of the world but staying there.
This now has to be written across the hearts of England's Test team, along with swift agreement that any team luxuriating in the title of the world's best can hardly treat a total failure to deal with seriously good spin bowling as some passing inconvenience. It is a huge flaw, especially now that the superb development of DRS has become such a powerful and morally sound aid to the ancient art of slow bowling. Getting to that top ranking was a brilliant achievement, a magnificent endorsement of the thinking and style of coach Andy Flower and captain Andrew Strauss. But in the end good intentions, as Faldo was so quick to say, can get you only so far.
If you are going to spend a little time at the top – as opposed to the dynastic years of the truly great teams like the West Indies and Australia – you have to do more than reject the easy complacency that so overtook England in the wake of their Ashes triumph of 2005.
You have to grow stronger in every area and the plain truth is that England have become progressively weaker in a way that seems almost guaranteed to undermine their status with visits to Sri Lanka and India pending and the formidable South Africa arriving in the summer.
Players of the extraordinary talent of Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell have retreated before the wiles of Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman, so badly that when Jonathan Trott reported ill, the most resolute department of England's batting was pared down to the scratchings of Strauss and the trademark resistance of Matt Prior.
After Pietersen's third abject failure of four in four innings, he tweeted "Oops..." You can't imagine a message like that from Viv Richards or Steve Waugh, not just because they were hardly inclined to banalities but also that the chances of either being involved in the kind of competitive breakdown which overcame England on Saturday were so utterly remote.
Flower, who ironically enough taught himself to play spin as well as anyone in the world, will probably be less dismayed by a killing lack of technique as the collective failure of will which consumed England when Pakistan displayed a willingness to fight through unpromising circumstances.
When Azhar Ali and the young Asad Shafiq inched their team into a lead, they were lambasted in some quarters – and not least by former England captain Nasser Hussain – for "going nowhere".
As it turned out, they were showing a gutsy determination to slug it out which would, in the perfect 20-20 vision of hindsight, put their opponents quite profoundly to shame.
England may be right to protest that what happened to them was less some crushing statement about the poor nerve with which they are handling their top ranking as a basic lack of preparation for alien conditions. They can also point to their traditional vulnerability the moment they hit Asian soil. But this washes only so far as it goes, which for England is not much further than the nearest water-hole.
The truth is that England gained their position not only because of some splendid performances, individually and collectively, but perhaps also through the decline of Australia to the point where they had to reinvent themselves, and the shockingly inept approach of India last summer.
Now another reality has come with the heart-warming redemption of Pakistan. England have discovered something Nick knew all along, which was that true greatness required him to hit at least a million balls. In England's case, most of them better be spinning.Reuse content