Wednesday, 17 August 2011

All Hail The Playground Bullies

By Shane Thomas

This is a weird time to be a supporter of the England cricket team. For as long as I've watched the sport, English cricket has been little more than a punchline. Summer after summer brought mediocrity, annoyance and often defeat. While things began to improve at the turn of the millennium - never more so than the epic 2005 Ashes series - English cricket had a place; which tended to be looking up at the Australians, as they conquered all and sundry to underline their position as the world's best.

But now, Australia are no better than an average side in transition. They took a pasting from England this past winter. And now India have just suffered at the hands of the new best side on the planet. Tomorrow's 4th Test match takes place at The Oval, but the series has already been decided, with England 3-0 up with one match remaining. Not only that, but they have comprehensively taken India's spot at the top of the world Test rankings.

The rise in England's fortunes over the past two years has been rapid. Ever since regaining The Ashes in 2009, they have become a fearsome unit, not just from numbers 1 to 11, but showing a depth in talent, negating any detriment in performance when players suffer injury. And it's not just the victories over India and Australia that have been so heartening, but the margin of them; three innings victories in Australia, while the victories over India have come by the ever increasing margins of 196 runs, 319 runs and an innings, and 242 runs. This aren't mere triumphs, these are annihilations.

India arrived on these shores as the best Test side in the world, as well as the 50 over World Champions. They are where the governing power lies in the game, as well as the most lucrative cricketing market.

But they also arrived here underprepared, and seemed to have allowed recent successes to go to their head. While they have been unlucky with injuries to some key personnel, such as Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh and Virender Sehwag, no ostensible "best team in the world" should be so heavily reliant on a handful of players. Could they have underestimated the ability of this England side?

It certainly appeared so, as the players often took to the field intermittently, absent of the requisite mentality to compete. The phrase "Test cricket" is no accident, it's called a test for a reason. Not only have India fallen short of the quality required at this level, but (Rahul Dravid and Praveen Kumar aside) they seemed to have no inclination to even try and stand up to England's dominance.

But let's take nothing away from England. Part of the reason that the Indians have looked so shoddy is because England have made them look that way. They have taken to the field with a steely and focused glint in their eye, executing the three disciplines of the sport with proficiency and ruthlessness. To be honest, their performance has been distinctly "Australian". For the past 15 years, it was the men from Down Under that would pulverise bowling attacks, scoring mammoth totals, giving their bowlers plenty of leeway to pressure the opposition batsman before skittling them out for paltry scores (thus far, India have failed to score over 300 in six separate innings).

The great Australian sides of the past were often accused of being bullies, walking onto the field with a swagger and a sense of entitlement. They relished not only beating sides, but marmalising them, leaving them helpless on the floor before laughing in their faces.

It'll take some getting used to, but these characteristics could easily be applied to this current England setup. We're used to our sporting heroes being packaged in the boxes marked, "plucky" or "unassuming". Well, not our cricketers. They swagger onto the field of play, they bully and pressurise their opponents before crushing them without mercy. They do this because that's what winners do.

There'll be some that will instinctively hate them for this. There's a reason that people hated the high achievers at school. But there's also a reason why they achieved; they were too busy thinking about success to worry about the grousing of others. And after years of being mediocre, I hail this England side. It's nice to have a team that is objectively the world's best for a change. They may be a bunch of playground bullies, but they're our playground bullies.

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