BBC’s Newsnight does not bother much with sport but on Friday it devoted some time to discussing the sporting success the nation is enjoying.
One of the questions that much intrigued the programme’s producers was what had happened to the British love for the underdog, never letting the desire to do well become a ruthless pursuit of victory in the way, shall we say, the Australians have always been rather good at?
The Newsnight producers would have got their answer at Lord’s yesterday. On the face of it this was like a return to old fashioned, indeed, vintage cricket. It was all the more striking given the frenetic nature of this Ashes series, which has, at times, suggested that the players are unable to get away from their fondness for T20 cricket. And if you think that until 5.15pm yesterday, when Australia claimed Ian Bell, only one wicket had fallen – this after two days when 23 wickets fell – you have some idea of how different this day’s play was.
It was all about England – having secured the advantage the bowlers and wretched Australian batting had given them – setting about consolidating their position so that Australia could only contemplate defeat.
Such was the predictable nature of the play that it was tempting to wander round the ground, catch up with old friends or some summer reading and feel you have not missed much. Just like cricket we were brought up on.
But those taking their eyes off the game would have missed the most striking thing about the day’s play: the way England appear to have rediscovered their ruthless streak, the desire to pile victory on victory. This was something that Andrew Strauss was so keen to instill when he returned from Australia with the Ashes two winters ago.
With England poised to become the No 1 Test side in the world, as they briefly did after beating India, it was striking how he did not regard just getting to the summit as an achievement. As he put it: “No England side has been No 1 in the world for any length of time.”
Strauss, who unlike modern cricketers studied history, had looked back at the 1950s England team performance in some detail and this made him speak of his desire to create a legacy of success that his successors could build on.
“I would argue that you can only be the undisputed number one if you can occupy that place in the rankings for a decent length of time,” he said. “That’s going to be the crucial thing. It’s lovely to have lofty ambitions but it’s another thing to achieve them.”
And once you get there, as Sir Alex Ferguson has never tired of repeating, you must maintain that top position.
In this process of accumulation Joe Root emerged as the most ruthless yesterday. This was his answer to those who were discussing, even as he came out to bat on Friday afternoon, that it would be a relief to him to be demoted back down the order. It could not have been more was emphatic.
True, for much of his innings not even the most diehard Yorkshireman could argue that Root’s batting was full of champagne moments – indeed, if truth be told even the Prosecco moments were hard to latch on to.
But he knew what his task was. Not individual glory, but team success, and in doing so he showed exactly how this new ruthless England is taking shape.