For a little while here yesterday it might have been that one of the three great England teams to beat the world would suffer a powerful, perhaps even exquisite, distraction. It could just have placed them, quite absurdly, in the margins of the climax of their extraordinary summer glory.
That was the threat offered by the Little Master Sachin Tendulkar when he moved to within nine runs of his 100th international century. But then when he fell, when one of the archetypal heroes of England's brilliant rise to the top of the Test rankings, the big, bluff young Yorkshireman Tim Bresnan, yelled his triumph, we were back in the company of the heart-warming reality.
Tendulkar has had a magnificent career but no one, not even a batsman of such fine nerve and beautiful skill, was entitled to draw attention away from the achievement of this all-conquering team assembled and drilled to the finest cutting edge by coach Andy Flower and captain Andrew Strauss.
Tendulkar's fame is set for the ages. It is about sporting gifts that come directly from the gods. It concerns the mysteries that shape any kind of genius.
No doubt the tribute and respect England won yesterday flowed partly from some exceptional talent but it had a different kind of foundation – and impetus.
It was based on a magnificent collective will and understanding. It grew from an acceptance that the past was too littered with mediocrity, too many teams who were not prepared to work hard enough, and maybe not suffer enough, for the goal of one day announcing themselves as the best in the world.
England's cricketers did this yesterday and as this ancient sports ground erupted with pleasure, as the team were handed a great mace to signify their new status, it wasn't hard to make the historical connection with those other teams who persuaded themselves they had the means to beat the best in the world.
A rudimentary knowledge of national sports history tells you who they were. First there were the World Cup winners of 1966, who were told by their driven coach Sir Alf Ramsey, "Gentleman, most certainly we can win the World Cup."
It was the team of Bobby Moore and Sir Geoff Hurst and the Charlton boys. It was a team that ran beyond the nation's hopes.
In 2003, Sir Clive Woodward pulled off a similar feat of persuasion – and, on a rainy night in Sydney, Martin Johnson led the team with the unlimited ferocity and Jonny Wilkinson delivered the coup de grace.
Yesterday, in the south London sunlight, it was Bresnan who landed the killing blow. Graeme Swann, the world's best spinner, came out of the shadows imposed by the brilliant seam bowling of England's man of the series Stuart Broad and the master of swing, James Anderson, and finished with six wickets.
Most significantly, he harried relentlessly the man who stood most menacingly between England and the 4-0 whitewash of India their overwhelming superiority demanded. But if it was Swann who undermined the master batsman, who chivvied him to the point where he needed no less than five lives to survive, it was Bresnan who sent back Tendulkar and, in the process, again exposed the now feeble reserves of resistance owned by a once great Indian team.
Tendulkar seemed to be in a state of some shock when Australian umpire Rod Tucker raised his finger for the lbw decision. As far as India was concerned, Tucker might have been a judge putting on the black cap. Briefly, Tendulkar had played the role of his great team-mate Rahul Dravid, the one source of consistent defiance this English summer. It didn't matter so much that he was pursuing personal glory, as long as he was there India had a focus, a purpose that had risen out of the debris of failed effort and, it has been hard not to say, abandoned values.
But then when Bresnan struck, when he rampaged across the grass which has known so much cricket history, you knew once again it was over. India lost seven wickets for 21 runs. They fell to their fourth massive defeat. They were a parody of the team that won the World Cup earlier this year and later they spoke of the need to grow strong at these broken places. The hero Dravid said that there were no quick, easy answers.
He seemed to be saying, if we wanted to be quite candid about it, that under discussion now was not a matter of cricket strategy or priorities but quite simply something of conscience.
For English listeners there could only be waves of fresh relief that, in the wake of the failed captaincy of Kevin Pietersen – and the earlier disillusionment of England's own whitewashing in Australia five years ago – there had risen up such a sturdy set of principles when applied to Test cricket.
In the first match of the series at Lord's, there was the celebration of the 2,000th Test. Well, it was less of that and more a set of fears about the future of the classic form of the game. Some of them, and we don't need to be self-righteous about this, have been confirmed by the showing of India here, by the dismaying failure to prepare properly for the challenge of defending the right to call themselves the best Test cricketers in the world.
For England the most troubling debate behind the celebrations here concerned the question of apportioning the glory and the blame.
Of course, England have played superbly. There have been innings of beauty from Ian Bell, extraordinary power and extravagance from Pietersen – who has also performed the stunning feat of converting an apparent obsession with the value of celebrity into a fierce belief in the team ethic – and astonishing commitment from Alastair Cook.
There has been the ferocious enforcement of Matt Prior, at the batting crease and behind the wicket – which yesterday was not the least of the pressures on another set of crumbling Indian batsmen.
There has been the ability of one seam bowler after another to apply maximum pressure at the most vital of moments. Yesterday it fell to Bresnan to do the most vital damage. But then Broad won his accolade for constantly meeting the challenge with bat and ball. By the time he came to The Oval, James Anderson had acquired the aura of a great bowler who had come to understand quite profoundly the extent of his powers. This was the build-up of achievement that brought all the cheers and the singing of Jerusalem here yesterday afternoon – and who could question the validity of it?
Perhaps it can only be said by someone honest enough to acknowledge that the opposition at times provided by India was so often a shocking reproach to a great cricket nation. But then when you say this, you have also have to allow that English cricket has developed for some years now the capacity to beat down the opposition, to apply a genuine cutting edge at those moments when a session of play, a day, a whole match or a series became the issue to settle, once and for all with a piece of outstanding competitive character.
Andrew Strauss's England have done this in two Ashes series, home and away, and now they have taken down the world's number one team. Maybe India had become bogus champions of Test cricket, perhaps South Africa represent a final and truer test of England's mettle.
However you look at it, though, England's cricket team last night could claim the greatest of distinctions. They were indeed the best in the world – and it was something they had fought for with all of their heart – and their considerable ability.
For a little while at least that is something that can speak – and sing – for itself.Reuse content