England needs to conquer sub-continent

England won the three-Test series against West Indies 2-0 and remained on top, but only just with 117 points. South Africa hovers dangerously close at 116. This perhaps is a strong hint that there is no space for monopoly in the cricketing world today. No longer may we see the kind of ‘we-will-knock-you-down' trait that the West Indies and Australia had during their respective decades of dominance. Over to K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

Role-reversals could not have been bigger than this — a West Indian fast bowler wields his bat like Antonio Banderas did his sword in ‘The Mask of Zorro' and scatters the England attack. Tino Best's 95 in Birmingham provided mirth and though centurion Denesh Ramdin's unnecessary taunt against Sir Viv Richards tended to overshadow everything else in the drawn third Test marred by rain, there is no mistaking the ironic undercurrents that whispered how the times have changed.

England is now the number one Test team and the West Indies, sorely missing its intimidating aura of the 1980s and 1990s, draws its pleasure from a fast bowler's bat. Mike Gatting's broken nose at Sabina Park, thanks to Malcolm Marshall's menace in 1986, seems so distant despite the references on Youtube!

England won the three-Test series 2-0 and remained on top, but only just with 117 points. South Africa hovers dangerously close at 116. This perhaps is a strong hint that there is no space for monopoly in the cricketing world today. No longer may we see the kind of ‘we-will-knock-you-down' trait that the West Indies and Australia had during their respective decades of dominance.

India held the number one tag for some time before the grey stubble in its batting pushed it to the fourth rank below Australia. England meanwhile steadily climbed the ladder with home and away wins in the Ashes besides pounding India 4-0 at home. The batting phalanx of Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen, with support from Ian Bell, firmed their imprints while fast bowlers James Anderson and Stuart Broad, along with off-spinner Graeme Swann, lent the attack a sharp bite to back its bark.

But life oscillates between peaks and slumps and England is no stranger to form's somersaults. In the months leading to stamping its authority against the West Indies, England found enormous stumbling blocks in Asia's heat and turgid pitches. A trip to the Middle-East proved more to be a walk in the scalding desert sands rather than the expected jaunt like breezing through the Dubai Shopping Festival.

Pakistan thrashed England 3-0 with spinners — offie Saeed Ajmal and left-armer Abdur Rehman — tightening the noose and though rigor mortis was shed belatedly through a 4-0 triumph in the subsequent ODI series, cricket's birthplace had taken note of its frailties in an alien continent. “England must learn to play in Asia,” skipper Strauss said.

England then spent a summer in the sauna that Sri Lanka is during April. The first Test was lost in Galle while another left-arm spinner Rangana Herath bagged a match-haul of 12 wickets. The number one spot was slipping away when the mercurial combine of Pietersen and Swann offered their varied fare of bewitching batting and beguiling spin to pull one back in Colombo. The series was drawn and Test cricket's crown remained with England.

The good run against the West Indies ensured that the throne still belonged to Strauss and company. The skipper, who received the ICC Test Championship's mace at a function in Lord's ahead of the first Test against Darren Sammy's men, is aware that his squad has to prove itself against South Africa before trooping into India for a crucial winter tour.

The sub-continent has to be nailed if England can truly lay claim to its credentials of being a domineering team. A huge advantage for Strauss is the way the British players have changed their outlook towards Asia from those days when Sir Ian Botham proclaimed that Pakistan is the ideal place to send the mother-in-law. It is another matter that his mother-in-law Jan Waller relished her trip to Lahore. Pakistan may still be a stay-away place due to terrorist threats, but India and Sri Lanka have been embraced with gusto by the West.

England's batting line-up may have a blue chip status but it is a fact that Strauss averaged 26 for close to a year before slamming two centuries against the West Indies. “It's dangerous to look too far ahead and things can change so quickly, and if you're too wedded to some ideal moment to go you can be very surprised by it. So the way I am looking at it really is one series at a time,” the skipper said recently.

A captain in the spotlight for run droughts can weigh a team down, but Strauss and his fine rapport with coach Andy Flower has to be acknowledged as a key ingredient that has propped up England. But more than form issues, England needs to assuage Pietersen's wounded ego.

The star batsman's retirement from ODIs and the England and Wales Cricket Board's decision to not field him for the ICC World Twenty20 later in Sri Lanka, will obviously weigh heavily in the change rooms. Pietersen is too valuable a player to be lost in the maze of administrative politics.

Every team has found its respective ways of handling larger-than-life players, be it Australia's Shane Warne or India's Sachin Tendulkar and England too needs to find the right path. The Pietersen episode may not have any resemblance to what transpired between the regimental Graham Gooch and the effervescent David Gower but that incident from the past surely offers a few lessons on player-management to the ECB.

Recently Strauss said: “It's about us concentrating on improving our own performances. If we can do that then the number one ranking will look after itself.”

That's easier said than done especially when teams like South Africa and India are itching to prove a point.