An apology. In the past, this column may have given the impression that England had an infuriating cricket team, that the selectors were liable to make glaring errors and the entire system was geared to produce mediocrity. We are happy to confirm that this is no longer the case, if indeed it ever was, and that England are now a magnificent example of how to run a cricket team in the absence of superstars.
It's funny how superstardom can backfire. By far the biggest name in this series was Muttiah Muralitharan, yet without him, Sri Lanka bowled England out cheaply and briefly held sway; with him, they never took 10 wickets for less than 500 and performed, in the words of Leonard Cohen, as if their father or their dog had just died.
A similar perversity took hold of England. They haven't had a superstar for a decade, but they did begin the summer with two players ranked in the world top 10 – Andy Caddick (at No 5) and Darren Gough (No 8). With Caddick there to lead the line, England bowled like absolute beginners at Lord's before improving at Edgbaston. When he pulled up lame at Old Trafford, they had to get by without either him or Gough for the first time in a home Test since Lord's 1998, against South Africa – a match they lost by 10 wickets. This time, they won by the same margin, and the next generation of pacemen bowled with such heart and brains that Gough and Caddick were barely missed at all. Not since crushing West Indies in 2000 had England exerted such dominance.
An unstarry team has to be a jigsaw, and in this series Nasser Hussain and Duncan Fletcher found three more pieces. The first was Alex Tudor, whose sustained accuracy silenced many of the doubts about his solidity and lifted him from way down the pecking order – behind Jimmy Ormond and Richard Johnson last autumn – to breathing down Matthew Hoggard's neck.
The second was Ashley Giles, who had been a vital cog overseas but had never done anything on the green green grass of home – in three Tests in England before last week, he had taken 3 for 278. At Old Trafford, bowling with the control and bounce of Phil Edmonds, if not the flamboyance, he took 5 for 126, and his batting contributed to victory for the first time.
The third find, however, was the most crucial. Tudor may have landed the man of the match award, but the real key to this game was Alec Stewart. When England wobbled in mid-innings and threatened to be dismissed for less than 400, it was Stewart, with his career on the line, who put them back in charge. By the time he was out, the total was past 500 and the senior pro had given his team-mates something they may have appreciated even more than the chance to watch the other England play Denmark: a guaranteed series victory. At the end of the game, when the younger players were exchanging delighted high-fives, it was noticeable how Fletcher, who has had a somewhat wary relationship with Stewart, stuck out a hand towards him, and Stewart, a handshake man by nature, responded with open arms. The 12th central contract, which went unawarded in April, can surely be his now.
Of the 640 hundreds that have been made for England, none had so much experience behind it as Stewart's 123 in his 118th Test. The previous most seasoned centurion was David Gower, who made a hundred in his 112th Test, at Sydney in 1990-91. It too was a 123, and an elegant one – as Stewart may remember, being at the other end for most of it, making 91.
In the last nine Tests, nine England players have now made centuries: the present top seven – Trescothick, Vaughan, Butcher, Hussain, Thorpe, Stewart and Flintoff – plus Mark Ramprakash and Craig White. Throw in Nick Knight, who averaged 52 in the winter's one-day internationals, and it is clear that England have quietly acquired strength in depth.
The weakest link? Just now, there isn't one. Normally, with a seamer breaking down early on, it would have been the depth of the bowling, but again Stewart came to England's rescue – if he plays rather than James Foster, five bowlers can be picked, and here that made the difference between a thrilling win and a dull draw. The batsmen may have been flattered by their opponents. Sri Lanka were a divided team off the field and a sorry bunch on it, dropping catches, missing tricks and making blunders right up to 7.25 on Monday, when Sanath Jayasuriya failed to spot that England needed only a run a ball for the last three overs and set fields with nobody at all saving one. Murali was disarmed not just by his bad shoulder but by Sven-Duncan's attention to detail – a customised game plan for each batsman which marked a new level of sophistication in England cricket coaching. Chaminda Vaas, famed for his reverse swing, found only reverse gear, and ended the series with fewer wickets than initials.
England could be flattered some more by the Indian seam attack, which is coming here without its one banker – Javagal Srinath, now retired from Test cricket. Unless Harbhajan Singh has one of his wonder games, England will have to bat very badly to lose any of the four Tests. Equally, with Laxman, Dravid and Sehwag lining up alongside Tendulkar, they will have to bowl well to win one. After this weekend, you can believe that it will happen.
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