The scenes were joyous- if also a little pompous and formal. The England players, having received the Npower Trophy and the Pataudi Trophy amidst the ritual wasting of champagne, set off on a jubilant lap of honour to a rousing rendition of Jerusalem. Then, after one circuit, it was time to gather again whilst five uniformed and be-gloved officers goose-stepped to the podium carrying, with great solemnity, the ICC Test mace.
It looked like a giant, golden cotton bud and Andrew Strauss didn’t really know what to do with it when it was handed over. He decided on a sly peck on the baubled end, not a confident smacker but the kind of shy, uncertain kiss that a schoolboy might try to sneak in behind the bike shed during the first rousing of adolescence. For the first time in the series, the England captain was unsure of himself.
Still, nobody in England, certainly not in the England cricket team, has ever seen the mace before. It has resided, for most of its adult life in Australia, and for a short while in India. It is now, though, assuredly at home in England and if Strauss has anything to do with it, it will remain here for a good while yet.
If the team’s standing is unchallenged, then the individuals within it are becoming increasingly well regarded by the international game. One begets the other. Ian Bell, man of the match for his double hundred, and Alastair Cook are third equal in the world rankings; Jonathan Trott is sixth and Kevin Pietersen is eighth. Five bowlers are in the top eleven in the world: Jimmy Anderson (second), Graeme Swann (third), Stuart Broad (fifth), Chris Tremlett (tenth) and Tim Bresnan (eleventh). This is a powerful unit, individually and collectively.
England’s standing at the summit of the world Test game was confirmed in the aftermath of another thumping victory, this time by an innings and eight runs- a veritable arse-nipper compared to the scale of the victory last week at Edgbaston. It came on the stroke of tea when Sreesanth was bowled, via an inside edge, by Graeme Swann, the bowler’s sixth wicket of another outstanding display from England’s bowling unit.
It sparked the same kind of scenes witnessed in Sydney last winter, with England huddled together in victory and the opposition’s last two batsmen bemused and uncertain of what to do. It was a victory that put the final brushstroke on the whitewash that had looked increasingly inevitable during the course of the series, the first time that India had been whitewashed since 1967-68 in Australia, and the first time in England since 1959, when the tourists succumbed 5-0.
For forty overs yesterday, though, as Sachin Tendulkar and Amit Mishra withstood everything that England threw at them, it looked as though the overnight wishes of a billion cricket Indian cricket fans were going to come true. Not only did these two batsmen look like taking their team to a draw, but Tendulkar’s hundredth international hundred was looming ever closer. They batted throughout the morning session, adding 144 together, India’s highest partnership of the series.
At this point, five overs away from the second new ball, England’s frustrations were clear enough. They had given Tendulkar two lives through their own errors, and had umpiring judgements go against them more times than they cared to remember. Tempers were beginning to fray: Strauss was given an official warning by the umpires because his team had been trampling unnecessarily over the pitch in between overs. They were getting tetchy.
But as so often has happened in this series, and for the last two years, England found the extra gear when they needed to. It was Swann, firstly, who broke Mishra’s resistance when he castled him with a straight one and then Bresnan broke a billion hearts when he was given the benefit of a marginal leg-before decision against Tendulkar, when the Little Master was nine runs shy of a milestone that will surely never be challenged again.
Crumbly and worn at the ends- so that by the end it was as if a layer of top soil has been erased- this was a pitch that was easier to stay in on rather than get in on, and the end came quickly thereafter. After Tendulkar, just twenty-one more runs were added, in fourteen more overs, the Nottinghamshire combination of Swann and Stuart Broad, man of the series for his all-round contributions, proving too hot to handle.
Suresh Raina endured the taunts of England’s close fielders, and a tortuous 42-ball pair when he was adjudged leg-before by Simon Taufel, although the replays indicated the cruelty of the decision, there being both an inside edge and too much height. Mahendra Singh Dhoni drove wildly and irresponsibly at Broad… Gautham Gambhir then gave Swann his fifth victim when he drove loosely to cover, the off-spinner celebrating the moment with unconstrained joy. RP Singh and Sreesanth were not minded to take the game beyond tea.
For Swann, this was a particularly pleasing day, given the pressure that habitually resides on a spinner’s shoulders on the fifth day and a wearing pitch. For two hours in the morning he wheeled away, bowling well, but not quite finding the snap from the pitch or his fingers that he would have hoped for. Nor was the luck with him. Alastair Cook put down, by the standards of catches a short-leg, a straightforward chance when Tendulkar had scored 70, and, after lunch, Matt Prior had dropped Tendulkar again off Swann when the batsman had scored 85.
Tendulkar had begun the day on 35 and for the first time in the series had shown signs of control at the crease. He was far less fidgety than before, less bothered by the imaginary demons behind the bowler’s arm. Amidst the drops and the close appeals, he continued to push on assertively, so that the chances of a hundred had progressed gradually from odds against, to odds on to, when he pulled Pietersen to the square-leg boundary to go into the nineties, a damn near certainty.
Were the dropped chances a sign of England’s sentimentality? It appeared that the umpires were so minded as well, when they turned down two huge appeals against Tendulkar from Swann, the first just before Prior’s fumble, the second two balls later. Bresnan then replaced Pietersen at the OCS Stand End and his first ball angled in so that Tendulkar thought about working it through the leg-side which he would have done had he not missed the ball.
When the appeal was upheld, Bresnan roared his approval, although Tendulkar stayed and looked quizzically at Tucker. It is about as close to dissent as Tendulkar will ever get. That hundred will probably come now on a dank September evening in Cardiff or Durham. Tucker, fair enough decision that it was, would be advised to avoid Mumbai for a while.