England will take the field at The Oval today for the first time as Test champions of the world. It has a lovely ring to it, a status bestowed simply by being top of the ICC rankings, which they confirmed by defeating India at Edgbaston last Saturday and going 3-0 up in the series.
According to the formula governing the table, England had to win by at least two clear matches to usurp India in first place and, whatever happens in the final match, they have done that. It is not a tenure that will last forever but England's task now is to try to ensure that it is not all over quickly.
In the Eighties it looked as if West Indies would continue to lord it over all they surveyed, and through the Nineties and well into the new millennium it was hard to imagine Australia being overthrown. But both were because all empires crumble. First, therefore, England have to build an empire.
Before that, they have India to contend with in the final match of this symbolic series. How they go about their business will be an indication of their seriousness to avoid being nine-day wonders. The indications are that England are deadly serious.
They recognise that the consistency of performance demanded to reach first place has yet to be matched by victories in every corner of planet cricket, which are needed for a side's deeds to endure beyond the day after tomorrow. More than anything, that comes down to winning in the subcontinent, in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and, above all, in India.
England and everybody else will be denied the first of those objectives for the foreseeable future because Pakistan remains a no-go area for cricket and much else. But they will have the opportunity this winter to play Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, specifically in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where it will be extremely difficult to eke out positive results on what are traditionally slow pitches.
Sri Lanka follow next March when England will play two Test matches. While these series will help to gauge where England are as an all-round team for all kinds of surfaces, they may be mere dress rehearsals for India in autumn next year.
There, England can expect no assistance whatsoever. India have been hammered this summer partly because of England's pre-eminence with the swinging and seaming ball. They have not suggested for a moment that they are aggrieved at this but there will not be an arena in the entire country from top to bottom in late 2012, from Mohali to Chennai, which will grant a sniff of movement to the fast men.
Expect them to put all their eggs in the spinning basket and presume that it will not end up all over their face. If England can get something from these three series – with South Africa, who fancy the crown themselves, at home in between – something durable will have been fashioned.
"The subcontinent is always the challenge," said Andrew Strauss, England's captain, yesterday as he permitted himself a glimpse ahead. "Even the great Australia sides struggled to win in India at times because those are conditions that are very foreign to what you're used to.
"That's the next challenge we've got, starting this winter and next winter as well, and that's what we'll be pushing ourselves for. What I would say is that the rankings reward your consistency as a side so, whether you're home or away, it's how often you win Test matches and beat opposition teams."
West Indies won easily in India in 1983 when they were at their absolute peak, but were held to a 1-1 draw four years later after the 19-year-old leg spinner Narendra Hirwani's sensational 16-wicket debut at Chennai in the final match. Australia were cocks of the Test walk for 15 years but three times in 1996, 1998 and 2001 they were denied in India.
When at last they won, under Adam Gilchrist's temporary stewardship in 2004, there was a national feeling that a mission had been accomplished. Australia have since lost two more series in India.
All this will nag away at England for the next year. But because of what they have already achieved, not least in Australia last winter, they will not play anywhere for the time being with an inferiority complex. They have demonstrated, as they have in this series, that they can win from the most unpromising of positions (124 for 8 at Trent Bridge converted to victory by 319 runs anybody?) and are well aware what has been the foundation of their triumphs.
"The basis of our success over the last couple of years is centred around a very strong work ethic, playing for each other and putting the team before the individual," said Strauss. "Trying to improve yourself individually on a day-to-day basis. How that exactly works is very much on an individual thing. Now is very much a time to keep that improvement going, it's not a time to take the foot off the gas and be satisfied with ourselves. We're going to be judged by higher standards now as a result of getting to No 1 and it's going to be harder and harder to stay there."
The last time that cricket entered the public consciousness to such a degree in this country was when England beat Australia in a series for the ages in 2005. How quickly that seemed to be wasted, so that within a year they seemed back to square one. Strauss was there.
"2005, it surprised us all, it was such a strong Australian side and I don't think until the very end of that series we truly believed we could beat them," he said. "We played some amazing cricket, and then maybe we weren't quite as clear in our own minds what direction we wanted to go in from there. This is a gradual evolution and we're only part of the way there on our journey as a group of players." England seem to know where they are going. They might even know how to get there.
The Oval details
England (probable) A J Strauss (capt), A N Cook, I R Bell, K P Pietersen, E J G Morgan, R G Bopara, M J Prior (wkt), T T Bresnan, S C J Broad, G P Swann, J M Anderson.
India (probable) M S Dhoni (capt & wkt), V Sehwag, G Gambhir, R Dravid, S R Tendulkar, V V S Laxman, S Raina, A Mishra, P Kumar, I Sharma, R P Singh.
Umpires S J A Taufel (Aus) and R J Tucker (Aus).
Pitch report If The Oval resembles anything like normal, it will have some pace and carry, even in a summer which has not been constantly warm and dry. It may also represent the spinners' best opportunity of making an impact on proceedings.
Weather Dull and overcast most of the day, with a chance of showers in the morning and heavier rain late in the afternoon. Maximum temp 20C
TV times Sky Sports 1 10.30am-7pm. Highlights: Channel Five 7-8pm
Odds England 11-8; India 5-1; Draw 11-10Reuse content