ICC CEO Dave Richardson has been heading all over the cricketing world to present his large mace to the alleged number one team. The frequency of his presentations, recently to Misbah-ul-Haq, Steve Smith and Virat Kohli has made a mockery of the ICC’s Test Rankings as it is clear that no team can currently claim to hold the top spot. It is quite unusual for there to be such an equality between so many sides but this is what we are seeing at this current time. There are no great teams that can compare to the Australia side of a decade ago or Graeme Smith’s South Africa in its pomp, but this equality can produce a superb series, as was seen by England and Pakistan in the summer of 2016.
Of the ten Test nations, five find themselves within 13 rating points of each other (the relative value of these rating points is pointlessly complicated and it is not worthwhile attempting to understand how they work. It should just be known that between the top five teams it is incredibly close). At the time of writing, before the 4th Test between India and England, the rankings read as follows:
India – 115.
England – 105.
Australia – 105.
Pakistan – 102.
South Africa – 102.
So where does the balance of power move from here? It is perhaps ominous that the current top three are the so called ‘big three’ that control the revenue of the sport and over the next few years it would be difficult to bet against India becoming, for the first time, the dominant force in Test cricket.
Looking from the restart of Tests after the second world war the sport has just about always had a team who are the clear leaders of the game. Australia were the best team until 1953, an era that included Don Bradman’s ‘Invincibles’. The 1953 Ashes saw a shift towards an England side that included the top order batsmen of Len Hutton, Peter May and Denis Compton as well as the bowling talents of Jim Laker, Brian Statham, Alec Bedser, Tony Lock and Fred Truman. England were eclipsed as a Test side by Australia under the captaincy of Richie Benaud in the late 50s. This period, towards the end of and after Benaud’s Australia, was one of the few times we have seen no clear dominant side in the sport. Colin Cowdrey and Ray Illingworth captained extremely good England sides although this was also the period of the captaincy of Frank Worrell and emergence of Garry Sobers for the West Indies. However, in the 70s Australia re-established themselves under Ian Chappell and, from the 1972 drawn Ashes series in England to England’s 3-0 series win against Australia in 1977, the Aussies were clearly the best side in the game. Following on from Australia, the West Indies rose to the top of the sport with a stunning 15 years without losing a series from 1980. Taking it back to 1976, the West Indies played 36 series, won 25, drew 9 and lost 2 until Australia won in the Caribbean in 1995. Australia’s victory sparked a further period of dominance for themselves which, arguably, ended only in 2010 when Ricky Ponting’s captaincy finished or with the 2009 Ashes defeat in England. Whatever the case Australia found themselves in decline from the 06/07 whitewash of England and the retirement of Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath within a year of that win. From 2006 it has been South Africa’s turn to be the clear number one Test side for the first time. South Africa only lost two series (Both to Australia at home) between their 06/07 win at home to India, and last year’s demolition in India.
The vacuum left after South Africa’s defeat on the subcontinent and subsequent home loss to England have created the equilibrium in the sport we find now. Australia are still rebuilding their side and England themselves are still transitioning following the disastrous Ashes and World Cup of 2014. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that South Africa recover quickly. Their defeat of Australia revealed some positive signs such as the depth in fast bowling and the potential of Quinton de Kock, although the increasing injury concerns surrounding Dale Steyn as well as the worrying form of Hashim Amla mean there are still big holes in the South African team. Pakistan managed to reach the official world number one spot after their series draw in England but the reliance on the veterans Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan will have its limits and the recent defeat to New Zealand revealed the fragility of the lineup without one of these key men.
Overall the two teams with the most potential to kick on and create an era of dominance are India and England. India are the most complete side at the moment with the successful move of Ravi Ashwin to six providing a level of solidity in batting and flexibility in bowling which could grant long term success at home and away. Pujara, Kohli, Rahane and Ashwin certainly make up the current best middle order in the world and the excellent form of Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami provide the most effective seam bowling attack that India have had in recent memory. It is unfortunate that we must wait until next November for India to tour outside of the subcontinent when they are scheduled to travel to South Africa and then June 2018 when they are due to arrive in England.
England are also in a good position to create a period of dominance which, realistically, they have not had in the Test game since the 1950s. The building blocks are in place for the creation of a superb side. Alastair Cook and Joe Root are two of the best batsmen in the world, Anderson and Broad still have some years in them yet, and Stokes is establishing himself, alongside Ashwin, as the game’s most outstanding allrounder. Alongside this there is real potential in players like Chris Woakes and Jonny Bairstow who have had outstanding years, with many more players in County Cricket who are on the verge of breaking through. England’s biggest issue at the current time is the balance of the side. The experiments in India with six bowlers has been an abject failure. The bizarre obsession with selecting average allrounders such as Zafar Ansari and Liam Dawson remains a problem and has left England with a batting line-up even more fragile than Pakistan without Misbah and with an out of form Younis. Despite this there is a feeling that if the England management can get the balance right for the summer visits of the West Indies and South Africa, England could put together a superb run of results.
Overall I would argue that India and England are the closest to breaking away from the pack in Test cricket. Australia are at the start of a tough rebuilding process and South Africa and Pakistan are a couple of retirements away from the same problem. India and England are beginning to progress with the only thing holding this Indian side back at the moment being the scheduling, which means the team will not be given many chances to prove themselves outside of the subcontinent.