England’s Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games team will march into the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium behind flag bearer Nicky Hunt this evening with their heads held high knowing they’ve exceeded the expectations of even their own chef de mission Craig Hunter by finishing third in the medal table just 35 behind all-powerful Australia and one gold adrift of a rampant home nation.

A team described by Hunter just two days before the Games began as a bold mix of current champions and talented youth has defied considerable odds – logistical, and, to some extent, logical – to win 32 more medals than in Melbourne four years ago.

Nick Matthew’s squash doubles victory on the penultimate day was not only an immensely impressive personal achievement but ensured this group of English athletes would take home more golds from Delhi than their heralded counterparts in 2006.

And when badminton stars Nathan Robertson and Anthony Clark bagged the team’s last medal this afternoon it brought to a close one of England’s most successful Commonwealth Games.

“We thought that India, with home Games advantage, would be significantly ahead of us, and we’re proud of the fact that we have got to the wire with them,” said Hunter.

“Our medal tally here is higher than it was in Melbourne 2006, although it’s difficult to do like-by-like comparisons because sports are different, but there’s no doubt our team has been enormously successful, and to be third on the table is exactly where we wanted to be.”

England’s performance also drew praise from Sir Andrew Foster, chair of Commonwealth Games England.

“The performance by England has been absolutely excellent, surpassing our expectations,” he said. “We all know there was adversity, and out of adversity has come tremendous performance.”

CGE president Kelly Holmes agreed: “I think it’s exceeded our expectations. There was an assumption that the Games weren’t going to be as successful as it was hoped. But I think they’ve proved everybody wrong, and I have to say to those athletes who didn’t turn up, some of them may have made a decision they will regret.”

England won medals in 16 of the 17 sports, with only rugby7s missing out, while the track and field athletes garnered eight more medals than four years ago, and one more gold. In all the aquatics disciplines England won 37 medals compared to 26 in 2006, while the team finished top nation in squash for the first time ever, and doubled its Melbourne gymnastics tally.

Indeed, there were firsts across the board for England, including the first ever women’s weightlifting medal to 16-year-old Zoe Smith, the first English wrestling gold since 1986, to Myroslav Dykun, the first archery gold medal for 28 years, and Danielle Brown marked her first Games experience as the first English Paralympian not only to compete in but win a non-parasport event at the Commonwealth Games.

Even race walk produced a first, as Jo Jackson became the first non-Australian to win the women’s event, becoming the first British female race walker to win a major championships title.

Elsewhere, England’s archers and shooters were on target as never before, none more than the compound archers who swept the golds in men’s and women’s events.

Talking of sweeps, Andy Turner led England to one-two-three in the high hurdles, England swept the board in the sprint relays, and England’s men filled the squash singles podium.

There were doubles too. Tom Daley’s “dive of my life” made him the third double champion in aquatics, following swimmers Rebecca Adlington, Liam Tancock and James Goddard, while shooter Stevan Walton won a brace of trap titles, and sprinter Leon Baptiste emerged from the shadow of better-known team-mates to win two golds on the track.

Matthew wasn’t the only double-winner in squash as Jenny Duncalf won two terrific silvers, and many others will leave India with multiple “minor” medals around their necks, among them Michael Gault who fired his last shot on Wednesday and exits the sport at the age of 56 as England’s most be-medalled Commonwealth athlete of all time.

Gault’s career may be over but Delhi 2010 belongs to those just starting out. Despite all the talk of absent names, Hunter’s confident assertion that new stars would emerge from these Games has proved well-founded.

When world heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis opted out of the Delhi experience, 25-year-old Louise Hazel merely shrugged her shoulders and got on with the job. At the end of two days’ hard competition she emerged with the crown last worn by Kelly Sotherton in 2006.

No-one fancied England’s gymnasts, not with the big stars training for the world championships. But up popped Luke Folwell and Imogen Cairns to win two golds apiece as the youngsters tumbled and vaulted their way to 13 medals.

In table tennis, 20-year-old Paul Drinkhall led the way, taking England to team silver and winning mixed doubles bronze with fiancée Joanne Parker. Younger still, Liam Pitchford, was a hero in the team final and the 17-year-old went on to win men’s doubles bronze with Andrew Baggaley.

“We’ve seen great success from a lot of our young stars,” said Hunter. “They are all former Commonwealth Youth Games competitors who have now succeeded in a major Games.

“We have missed some of our stars who haven’t come out, but I think that’s not what it’s about, it’s about those who did come out here and achieve, and I think they sent back positive messages to those at home that they’re ones to watch.”

Two weeks ago Hunter claimed this was a “ great and dynamic team” that would head home at the end of two hard weeks having made its country proud. England’s athletes will celebrate the Closing Ceremony tonight, then fly out of India tomorrow having done just that.

“Our aim is to be the best we can be,” said Hunter. And that turned out to be pretty good.

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