The criticism against England’s batting on the third day of the Oval Test by James Faulkner, while being unfair, was not exactly new. English cricket has generally been associated with solidity, textbook cricket and a thoroughly professional approach. Very rarely are adjectives like flamboyant and swashbuckling and buccaneering used to describe England’s players.
Once in a while, a Ted Dexter or an Ian Botham or an Andrew Flintoff or a Kevin Pietersen might emerge but generally English cricket has been characterized by the likes of Len Hutton, Colin Cowdrey, Ken Barrington, Geoff Boycott and Alastair Cook. Besides his captain, Jonathan Trott would also symbolize the England approach today but then it is not that England’s batsmen cannot up the tempo in a Test match.
Set a challenge by Michael Clarke on the final day at the Oval, England’s batsmen rose to the occasion and even Trott scored at a rate much faster than his career strike rate. Just a couple of overs more and England would have been home, giving a fitting reply to Faulkner’s unwarranted and unjust comments.
Thanks to the increase in the number of Fifty50 and Twenty20 matches, England’s batsmen have the happy knack of making the right adjustments in Test cricket but overall they are aware of the tactics and strategy to be followed in the game’s traditional format when the odds are against them or when the situation calls for a canny and cautious approach.
Their batting on the third day was very much in keeping with this. Fully aware that they could not win the Test in a face of a first innings total of almost 500 but also aware that they could lose the match by irresponsible batting the England players ground it out like only they can.
These indeed are happy times for England. Not too long ago they were the No 1 Test team in the ICC rankings. They surrendered that place to South Africa, slid to No 3 and now with this emphatic triumph over Australia they have crept back to the No 2 slot pushing India to third spot.
They are also in the No 3 spot in the ODI rankings having finished runners-up to India a couple of months ago in the Champions Trophy. It is only in the Twenty20 rankings that they figure low down in sixth spot but here again it must not be forgotten that they won the T20 World Cup in the Caribbean in 2010.
But the England players and their supporters have always treasured their performances in the Test arena more than anything else and in the long 136 year history of Test cricket, England have frequently held the top spot even if there were no ICC rankings in the old days.
I have always held the view that the England squad of the fifties can hold their own when there is any discussion about the greatest teams of all time. Generally these debates centre round the all conquering West Indian teams of the 80s and early 90s or the formidable Australian teams of the late 90s and the early years of the new millennium.
But a closer look at the performances of the England side during that decade and the personnel available at the time could place things in the proper perspective. England were the leading team in Test cricket for almost the entire decade, not losing a series at home from 1951 to 1960 and not losing a series anywhere from 1951 to 1959.
The line-up during the decade of dominance included Len Hutton, Denis Compton, Alec Bedser, Peter May, Colin Cowdrey, Tom Graveney, Ken Barrington, Ted Dexter, Trevor Bailey, Godfrey Evans, Bill Edrich, Fred Trueman, Brian Statham, Frank Tyson, Jim Laker, Tony Lock and John Wardle.
Perhaps it would be nigh impossible for any England team to match that all-conquering team but even in later years they have had purple patches. For example from 1968 to 1971, when they were the leading side in the game, England went through a run of 26 Test matches without defeat – a world record broken only by Clive Lloyd’s West Indian side of the 80s which raised the mark to 27, a record that still stands.
England had another great run from 1977 to 1979 under the captaincy of Mike Brearley when they won 15 out of 27 Tests, losing only two, but that was largely by default as West Indies and Australia were badly hit by defections to Kerry Packer’s World Series.
Coming to think of it, England have not had a bad record in Test cricket even of late. The jewels in the crown have to be the three successive Ashes triumphs making it a total of four out of the last five. Their 4-0 clean sweep against India in 2011 which lifted them to the No 1 spot has also to be right up there as also the fact that they notched up an English record of eight successive Test victories in 2004.
At the moment they have the nucleus of a great side and another Ashes triumph Down Under during the winter could well see them seriously challenge South Africa for the top slot.