But there must be of grain of truth there somewhere. In which case England are on to something. The ICC’s player rankings should not be taken as the gospel, but the simple fact that England suddenly have three bowlers in the top ten – that’s two more than Australia – can be a source of cautious optimism.
Down at number eight in the rankings is the feisty Stuart Broad, the baby-faced snarler, who does appear to be stronger and faster after being sent away for his strength and conditioning at the start of the season.
At number four is Jimmy Anderson, the unsmiling assassin (providing the ball is swinging), who is romping up the list of all-time English Test wicket-takers – he has just passed Angus Fraser and is now fifteenth. Steven Finn, by the way, is No 32 in the ICC rankings but rising fast.
And at number three is Graeme Swann, which is truly remarkable. Here is an orthodox finger spinner, an Englishman to boot, up there in the top flight. It never used to be like that.
I caught Shane Warne on TV saying that Swann was the most improved international cricketer in the world this year. Warne is a fan, which is not so hard to understand. Swann plays with a smile; he plays his own way; he likes the limelight. He may not possess a flipper or a doosra or a zooter (even Warne didn’t really have the last two), but he has bottle.
Warne recognises a kindred spirit. They also share a statistical quirk, which is that their bowling averages in Test cricket are lower than their averages in first-class cricket (Warne – Test average 25, first-class 26. Swann – Test average 28, first-class 32).
This is very unusual among bowlers. Test wickets are usually flatter than most, which explains why quite a few batsmen have higher Test than first-class averages. However, there are some batsmen who stand out in this regard and who somehow seem to have functioned better amid the heightened tension and higher standard of Test cricket than in the treadmill of the first-class game.
In the current England team Paul Collingwood (Test batting average 43, first-class 37) provides the best example. In the recent past Marcus Trescothick (43, 40) and Michael Vaughan (41, 36) offered a striking disparity. In the more distant past David Gower was a much more formidable opponent in a Test match than a county game (44, 40).
All these batsmen have rewarded selectors, who have been swayed by that touch of class and that hint of an ice-cool temperament rather than by a massive volume of county runs. It may be that Eoin Morgan (relatively modest first-class average of 38) will join these ranks.
So much for the batsmen; let’s return to the match-winners. The transformation of Swann from wholehearted county performer to Test star has been astonishing. He has never dominated in county cricket as he has done at international level.
Since returning to the England fold after his ten-year ostracism his skills and his fitness have improved immeasurably, but it is his capacity to relish the grand stage that enhances him the most.
The challenge for the selectors is always to try to identify some others who can respond so positively to the big-time.
Now, though, a word of warning lest we all get too excited by the presence of so many English bowlers in the ICC’s top ten. I’ve just had a look at the batting rankings and I can’t find an Englishman anywhere until I reach nos 20, 21 and 23 (Kevin Pietersen, Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood).
The Ashes are not quite in the bag.