On many occasions during the second Test it was difficult to believe that the best England team ever was before our very eyes. The early batting was careless, the fast bowling was perpetually inaccurate, crucial catches were dropped.
The expressly stated goal of being the No 1 ranked side in the world remains possible by the end of the summer, assuming the series lead against Sri Lanka is held and that India too are defeated. But beyond that official objective is another which goes beyond mere temporary global domination.
Rummaging through the recent book by the captain, Andrew Strauss, there it was. "When I took over the side, I had a team meeting and asked, 'What are our goals for this England side? The obvious goal is to reach No 1 in the world but there's something else too – to be the best England team ever," he wrote.
This is a significant aspiration by any standards (consider the team led by Len Hutton and Peter May in the Fifties, Ray Illingworth's team in the early Seventies) but Strauss is not given to hyperbole. Presumably, he thinks he has the tools for the job, though a crucial one, the cutting edge that is Jimmy Anderson, was missing at Lord's in the last few days.
It was not simply that England made elementary mistakes in all three departments of the game, errors that they had virtually erased in the four innings defeats they had inflicted in their previous five Tests. There was a perceived lack of ruthlessness about their push for victory.
England left themselves 58 overs to dismiss Sri Lanka, having first put the match beyond their opponents. All Sri Lanka had to do was bat out the time, which in the event was unnecessary because a draw was agreed before the final hour began. All, in this case, might have been considerable as the tourists had been bowled out in 24 overs in the remarkable conclusion at Cardiff last week.
But a team with genuine belief in being the best ever might have trusted its instincts a little more, offered Sri Lanka just a sniff of victory and then crushed them. When Australia were cocks of the walk for so long from 1993 on, they made mincemeat of all visiting sides. Sri Lanka were routinely hammered and in two of three series when that happened Muttiah Muralitharan was in their side.
Andy Flower, England's coach, said yesterday: "Could we have declared earlier? That was an option for us, but we wanted to have plenty of runs to play with. We know the Lord's pitch stays true through a five-day game, and I don't think there was enough in it for us even then.
"I think it was just an example of good, old-fashioned Test cricket – two big first-innings scores, sides batting and bowling well in periods, and making the odd mistake. It is always a good reminder of how hard you have to work and how much skill it takes to get into a position to win a Test match."
All that is valid and those large recent victories should not be overlooked. But there was still an air of settling for the draw – in the late declaration, in the static progress of the run machine Alastair Cook on the fifth morning – in the decision to call it off with 15 overs still left.
Strauss wrote in his book, Winning the Ashes Down Under: "English cricket is very caught up in the Ashes – and rightly so because it's an amazing contest but as we saw in 2005, if that is your end goal, then once you win that one series, where do you go from there? So it's great to have that as a sort of mantra for the side – to be the best England team ever – because it means that every series you play has context." And, it would seem to follow, every match.
There were outstanding facets of England's performance at Lord's. Their recovery from 22 for 3 to 486 all out was their most efficient from such a parlous position. They still bowled out Sri Lanka despite being so wayward, as if they were seeing the Lord's slope with which all of them are familiar for the first time. Indeed, they took the last seven first-innings wickets in 21 overs (another reason they might have continued on the fifth day).
Flower is never a man to dwell on what was but concentrates on what might be and how he can make that what will be. He will probably learn more from the Lord's draw than he did from the Cardiff victory.
"I don't think that was in our minds, we had already drawn a line under the Cardiff Test," he said. "To get to 22 for 3 in the first place was not our most successful piece of batting. People reacted very well to that pressure situation. But from the position we were in, Cook, Bell and others did an outstanding job resurrecting the innings.
"I thought we could have bowled better in the first innings certainly. I would hope that it wasn't the Lord's effect, because we play a lot of cricket there. I think the technical issues David Saker [the fast bowling coach] referred to are not huge changes to be made. Everyone is always tinkering. He has seen one or two little things that might need to be tweaked, but nothing more than that."
It is probably beyond Strauss's team to leave the desired legacy but he could adduce counter-arguments. Never can England have had three batsmen in such exemplary form as Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Ian Bell are in now. Since the beginning of last winter's Ashes series all of them have played in England's seven Test matches. Cook has eight scores above 50 from his 10 innings, Trott five from 10, Bell seven from his nine and their averages are phenomenal, respectively 122.33, 88.50 and 90.17.
The bowlers have been less spectacular but they too have hunted in packs and three of them, Anderson, Chris Tremlett and Graeme Swann, have more than 20 wickets in that span, only Swann playing in all matches, and Steve Finn has 18 in four. There is a way to go as the evidence from Lord's demonstrated but perhaps Strauss's comments were not merely the sort of throwaway remarks a ghost writer persuades the putative author to put in books to further the cause of serialisation rights.
Through the centuries: Five great England sides
A E Stoddart was the captain as England dominated the early Ashes clashes – Australia held the urn only once during 12 series between 1883 and 1896. Stoddart was also a fine rugby three-quarter but, faced by financial worries, shot himself after his 52nd birthday.
England won the Ashes for the first time in 19 years at The Oval. Len Hutton retained the urn two years later Down Under, and the side, later led by Peter May, and with great fast bowlers in Fred Trueman and Brian Statham, were dominant for much of the decade.
Always under-rated, Raymond Illingworth's side peaked with a superb Ashes win in Australia. John Snow was the spearhead and helped to secure a 2-0 series win. Geoff Boycott and John Edrich were prolific with the bat.
Michael Vaughan's side – featuring the likes of Marcus Trescothick, Kevin Pietersen, Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison and Simon Jones at the peak of their powers – beat a genuinely great Australian team in a monumental Ashes series.
Andrew Strauss took over after Kevin Pietersen's spat with Peter Moores but England were bowled out for 51 in Jamaica. He has since won the Ashes at home and then a 3-1 series success in Australia, including three innings victories.
Prior escapes fine
Matt Prior has been reprimanded by the International Cricket Council but escaped a fine for breaking a window in the Lord's pavilion after his run-out against Sri Lanka on Tuesday.
The England wicketkeeper was upset by his dismissal and threw his bat in the dressing room. It bounced off other bats and smashed a window, sprinkling glass on spectators, one of whom suffered minor cuts. "Matt knows that his action was in breach of the code and he should be more careful in future. That said, it was clear that the damage was purely accidental and without malice," match referee Javagal Srinath said yesterday.Reuse content