By Adrian Meredith
India lost the 3rd Test match by an innings inside four days. England are now sitting pretty at 3-0 up in the four-Test series. The question now is: Will India will slip to the third slot? And that will happen if India lose the 4th Test as well.
Prior to the series beginning, India were ranked 1st in Tests, with South Africa 2nd and England 3rd. India were favourites going into the series after being the best team in Tests for some 18 months.
India played and defeated South Africa in a number of hard-fought Tests both home and away and also faced stern challenges against Sri Lanka. They didn't win every match but stayed ahead. The big challenge was meant to be their tour of Australia later in the year. If they could win that, then there could be no disputing their title of best test team in the world.
The World Cup victory just a few months ago was meant to highlight just how good India were. Sure, they are still ranked 2nd in ODIs, rather than 1st, but having won the World Cup it just suggested to most, at least outside of Australia, that they were the best. They are the first main hosts to win a World Cup (though co-hosts Sri Lanka won in 1996) and also an IPL team, captained by India's captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, won the Champions Trophy - and the IPL itself of course. What more was there to do?
The small matter of beating England in England seemed like a formality. India decided to build up to it by letting a number of players take a break before it and miss the series in West Indies. Rather than get on a roll with some crushing victories, which surely would have happened had their best players all gone, instead they sent effectively second- string players and West Indies nearly pulled off a victory, with the series finishing just 1-0 after Dhoni failed to go for the win in the 3rd and final test. It was in many ways humiliating. It came from out of nowhere. Not only were they second-string players, and perhaps the wrong players but the captaincy lacked bite.
But in England the best players were coming back. Sehwag was still out injured, but most of the others were back. India could have had Yuvraj Singh open the batting and not waste time with the ineffective replacement openers, but they decided that they would rather have a regular opener, no matter how hopeless. And in the first Test we thought that Zaheer Khan was fit, and he was certainly dangerous, but then he broke down, then Sachin Tendulkar broke down, then Gautam Gambhir broke down, and suddenly India looked, well, broken.
It is not like England flogged India. It was fairly close, and, given that it was effectively Eight vs 11, India could perhaps suggest that they were on top. Zaheer Khan missed the second Test, but a fully fit bowler replaced him. At least they had eleven fit and ready players.
But then the second Test was worse. And then for the third Test, in spite of Sehwag being back, things worsened even further. The under-performing Harbhajan Singh was out but still there was no respite.
In hindsight, India should have sent a full-strength team to West Indies, and pressed for victories instead of settling for a draw when there was an opportunity to win. It should have sent the best batsmen, not just the best openers, and should have tried out Yuvraj Singh as opener. Everybody should have tried their best, instead of worrying about Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th international century. The Dhoni vs Harbhajan Singh advertisements dispute isn't helping either.
The reality is that India were never the top team to start with, at least not indisputably. It has been a tie for quite some time now. Yes, Australia have fallen, but realistically Australia aren't fifth either. There is precious little difference between the top five teams: India, South Africa, England, Sri Lanka and Australia. On their day, any of those top five can beat any of the other five.
England will, of course, be happy that they are officially the top team for the first time since 1979. Of course, in 1979 realistically England weren't the top team either, it is just that Australia and West Indies had virtually their entire first XI side playing World Series Cricket - after they returned, England went back to No 3. The last time that England were genuinely the best side was in the days of Jim Laker, the 1950s. It may have been 1961 or so, before Richie Benaud inspired Australia to take back the mantle, which in turn saw the emergence of South Africa and then West Indies as forces in world cricket. For the majority of the 1950s, Laker inspired England to be the best team in the world. This is the first time since then, i.e. the first time for 50 years, that England have held top spot in the rankings, not counting the illegitimacy of the 1979 ranking, which was illegitimate due to World Series Cricket.
England will cling onto that label in the same way that India did. They will use it to inspire themselves. They will use it to try to encourage their fans, and upset their opponents.
The reality is that India could easily beat England. India could and should have beaten England in this series. India could easily beat England in the 4th Test, in spite of how they've been trounced so far. All it takes is for Sehwag to get into some form, Tendulkar to get over the burden of his 100th century, Praveen Kumar to add to his good form with something amazing and all of a sudden England are dead and buried. It might not happen, of course, but if India are trounced again it is not because of a difference in talent but rather something more psychological, because they have been losing and they have become used to losing.
And it really depends on how each team takes it. After the 2009 Ashes defeat, Australia then lost a home series to South Africa, but won the 3rd Test and then beat South Africa in South Africa. But overall, their performances became worse and they slowly lost their grip. The selection panel went crazy dropping in-form bowlers while retaining out of form batsmen and by the time that they got to the 2010/11 Ashes it was more pot luck than anything, with a 17-man squad named just for the 1st Test. And while officially they lost the top ranking in 2009, they could have and should have won the 2010-11 Ashes, were it not for stupid selections.
On the other hand, New Zealand suffered a humiliation not long ago too, when they went to Bangladesh for a five-match ODI series. They were expected to win 5-0. Nobody thought that Bangladesh had any serious chance to win even a single match, as they never had before, only winning a handful of matches in their history against full Test nations. Yet they won not only one match but four, not only winning the entire series but whitewashing it 4-0 with one washout.
Yet New Zealand turned it around with a great World Cup campaign that saw them reach the semi-finals and now, with a redevelopment of the squad, including new coach John Buchanan (the man who was at the helm when Australia became dominant) they have a lot of confidence in what they will be able to achieve.
Will India go crazy with stupid selections to ruin the side, like Australia did? Or will they turn it around with common sense, dedication and good planning like New Zealand did? It really depends on how they take it.
If India think of this as the end of an era (albeit a rather short-lived one) then they look certain to head down the path that Australia took. They'll soon be axing Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman just because they are getting old and to "make way for new blood", even though they are three of the most dependable batsmen who are all in good form.
But if India think that realistically they have been just one of five teams who are equal best, and that their No 1 ranking was a statistic not a reality, then it is a lot easier to take. India are still equal first, along with four other teams. It may be several years, maybe even decades, before we have a clearly dominant team again.
I for one find it exciting that we have a period with so many teams who are virtually equal. Two of those teams, Sri Lanka and Australia, are playing a T20, ODI and Test series now and quite frankly I have no idea whether the test series will finish 5-0, 2-2 or 0-5. One team could whitewash the other or it could be whitewashed the other way around or it could be close. I have no idea. And that is just because of how even those top five teams are.
Pakistan are clearly in 6th spot and can surprise to win, as they showed just before the bans, when they won a Test against England and also tied the series 1-1 against Australia.
New Zealand, in 7th spot, rarely challenge the top five, but can pull off the occasional upset and perhaps now under new direction they are a bigger chance.
West Indies in 8th really are only a serious chance in Tests at home.
Bangladesh in 9th are a distance behind and are now being beaten quite soundly by Zimbabwe in 10th, albeit in Zimbabwe.
But there is a clear top five. Never before in Test history has there been so many in top spot. We have had periods of time where there have been two, even three, teams that were virtually equal. In the early 1960s it was England, Australia and South Africa all virtually equal and just before South Africa were banned it was still Australia, South Africa and West Indies all virtually equal. But we have never before had five that were virtually equal.
It is an exciting time for cricket, especially for Test cricket. My hope is that this evenness will continue for a period of time to come.
India shouldn't be too worried about losing. They have to strive for consistency. If they had been consistent, sure, they might have lost one or even two Tests and maybe even lost the series, but they would have salvaged some pride. That has to be their aim. So long as India remain in the top five, and remain capable of beating any of the other top teams, there is no shame in them losing, even a series that looks this bad on the scoreline.
It'd be a different matter entirely if this series were held in India, when England would expect to be whitewashed.
(Adrian Meredith, an Australian from Melbourne, has been very passionate about cricket since he was seven years old. Because of physical challenges he could not pursue playing the game he so dearly loved. He loves all kinds of cricket - from Tests, ODIs, T20 - at all levels and in all countries and writes extensively on the game)