How England became top dogs
India having been splattered across the windscreen of the juggernaut that is the current England Test team, the days when England were more of a clown's car of an outfit are becoming a dim and distant memory. But, lest we forget, those days were not too long ago.
BBC Sport explains what it took to lift England from being the worst Test team in the world in 1999 to the world's top-ranked team in 2011.
In 2000, then chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, Lord MacLaurin, introduced central contracts. Before then, for many players the step up from county cricket to the international stage had been akin to being plucked from repertory in Scarborough and handed a leading role in an MGM blockbuster, a shock many found too hard to handle.
MacLaurin - acting on advice from England captains and coaches past and present - realised a better course of action would be to earmark talent and shape and nurture it away from the humdrum county system, much like a studio from Hollywood's golden age grooming a talented starlet before thrusting her into the limelight.
"Suddenly Nasser Hussain [who was appointed England captain in 1999 and [coach] Duncan Fletcher had greater control of the players and therefore were in a better position to mould the team and the system to how they wanted it to be," says former England fast bowler Angus Fraser, who played 46 Tests between 1989-98.
Duncan Fletcher (left) and Nasser Hussain brought more rigour to the England set-up (Photo: Getty)
"Before, there was a different mentality: I was a Middlesex player who was released to play for England and when my Middlesex duties finished, I was straight back to Middlesex. There was still a feeling that it was 11 blokes who got together every fortnight to play a Test match for England, there wasn't a real team vibe.
"But the introduction of central contracts meant all of a sudden there was a 'Team England' and you now have a core of players whose focus is primarily England - England is their job. It's the England team that largely controls what they do, and they save their best for England, which wasn't always possible before."
Adds Alec Stewart, who led England between 1998-99: "What they [the selectors] do now is they don't just look at who's had a good week or a good fortnight in county cricket, they pinpoint players with ability and character - and character was something that perhaps wasn't considered previously.
"The selectors now look at the make-up of the individual - how he reacts under pressure, how he reacts to being in the limelight, or how they believe he'll react, and make a judgement call based on that."
A winning structure
Stewart tells a quite startling story of how, when he first played for England in 1990, the team's fitness coach donated his time for free. Fast-forward 21 years and there is barely enough space on the Lord's balcony to accommodate the retinue of support staff. Batting, bowling and fielding coaches, analysts, a statistician, a masseur - fast-forward another 21 years and they might even have a jester.
"Players of my era take exception to people saying we were unprofessional," says Stewart. "In my time with the team it was a professional set-up and the will to be successful was always there. But because we didn't have the finances we couldn't always do what we wanted to do.
Stewart and Fraser toast an historic England win in Barbados in 1994 (Photo: Getty)
"Because of the structure that's now in place, there doesn't look to be a fitter, more athletic side in world cricket, they pride themselves on attention to detail. I'd play a Test match, finish it on a Monday, play a Benson and Hedges game for Surrey on Tuesday, play a three-day game through to Friday, a Sunday League game - and then turn up for another Test match."
There are those who argue having the best cricket team in the world is not much good if a great swath of the country is unable to watch them in action. But without the money from Sky which has allowed a winning system to be put in place, England would not be the best cricket team in the world - which sounds rather like a Chinese riddle.
Continuity of selection
It was batsmen Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Hick who became most synonymous with England's skittish selection policy in the 1990s, the lavishly-talented duo dropped more times between them than a dewy cricket ball. But even reliable performers such as Fraser were not immune.
"It was a pretty selfish existence in my day because every player felt if he had a couple of bad games he was going to get the axe," says Fraser. "There is greater security now, and security allows players to relax slightly into the position they're in and enjoy what they're doing, rather than feeling they're under huge pressure."
"There were one-cap wonders all over the counties," says Stewart, "and people were being picked and dropped 10-12 times. For the sake of continuity, for the individual and for the team, that can't be good.
"Stuart Broad is an example of where the selectors had the strength of their conviction. People wanted him dropped before the series against India, but [coach] Andy Flower and [captain] Andrew Strauss know what they want and they stuck with Broad's quality."
Former England paceman Devon Malcolm recently told me he became so demoralised during the Test series in South Africa in 1995-96 that he came very close to packing his bags in the middle of the night and heading home. His raw bowling action having been tinkered with, his heart having being publicly questioned by the abrasive Raymond Illingworth, the mercurial Malcolm was emblematic of an often confused and fractious era.
"Nasser [Hussain] gave everybody a kick up the backside and brought a reality check," says Fraser. "He was hard on people, he ruled with an iron fist. But he brought some toughness into the England side and his ruthless desire to achieve and improve was well backed up by Duncan Fletcher behind the scenes. He was an excellent coach and helped create a more attention-to-detail ethos that had been absent a bit.
England celebrate the victory at Edgbaston that secured them top spot (Photo: PA)
"Then you had Michael Vaughan, who still had a push, push, push mentality but was slightly more iron fist in a velvet glove. And now you've got a very well-organised, well-drilled outfit and very high expectations from Strauss and Flower, who are two fine men at the helm. It's much more self-reliant, with players making responsibility.
"Strauss and Flower are both no-nonsense characters, they don't suffer fools and it's all about the team. There was a little period when England almost became an England players' PLC, they seemed more interested in promoting themselves and maximising their off-field image. Now, they're all focused on winning games of cricket for England."
Fraser did not mention any names but it is easy to fill in the gaps: with Andrew Flintoff retired and Kevin Pietersen brought to heel, this current England side is very much a team moulded in Strauss and Flower's image.
The decline of others?
Given India's woeful performances in the current series, it almost beggars belief they arrived in England ranked the world's pre-eminent Test team. However, it should be remembered they were woefully undercooked and have since been shorn of their most potent attacking weapon, seamer Zaheer Khan, who limped out of the first Test at Lord's and has not played since.
In addition, this is a thuggish England outfit and the merciless nature of their victories in the first three Tests has been reminiscent of the West Indies in their 1980s pomp and recent Australian juggernauts.
"I'd much rather say how good England are than talk about the fall of others," says Stewart. "England are a very, very strong outfit and they've battered some of these other sides. England are ruthless, when they're on top they rub the opposition's nose in it, and show me a great side that isn't ruthless."
"India are a good side but they've been poor in this series, you can't hide from that," says Fraser. "But England have played some pretty brutal cricket, they've gone after India and they've got to them, it's been ruthless in its execution.
"There is real strength in depth in the pace attack - Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, Chris Tremlett, Tim Bresnan, Steven Finn, Graham Onions - and that's of great encouragement, because bowlers win you matches.
"Unless you've got a Shane Warne or a Muttiah Muralitharan you're going to be reliant on pace bowlers and England have got more than their fair share of them. And they're all of a pretty good age - English cricket will be strong for a few years to come."
The argument as to how good this England team is will rage. In terms of bona fide greats, it falls short of Len Hutton's all-conquering side, which contained the likes of Peter May, Fred Trueman, Denis Compton and Jim Laker and went unbeaten in 14 series between 1951 and 1958.
But, unlike Vaughan's Ashes-regaining side of 2005, the 2011 vintage contains no real weak links. It is a team of all talents - and it could well become England's greatest of all time.