The No 1 rank is nothing more than a number. England have to do a lot better to get ahead of the top five, let alone to be dominant © Getty Images.
The No 1 rank is nothing more than a number. England have to do a lot better to get ahead of the top five, let alone to be dominant © Getty Images.

 

By Adrian Meredith

 

England, India, South Africa, Australia and Sri Lanka are clearly the top five teams in Tests in contemporary cricket. While England is ranked No 1, until a week ago India were in the top spot. But the fact is there is very little to choose among the top five teams — in all formats.

 

Pakistan, following the above five, can still spring surprises in spite of the many trouble they have faced in recent times, including losing three key players to the spot-fixing scandal. In seventh spot is New Zealand, who can still cause the occasional upsets. In the eighth spot is West Indies, who are competent only at home and yet ending up losing. In ninth spot is Bangladesh, who rarely challenge the top five. In the tenth spot is Zimbabwe.

 

But the focus of this article is on the top five teams and their strengths and weaknesses.

 

England

 

England have a good all-round side. Alastair Cook is in great form while Jonathan Trott’s start to his career is reminiscent of Michael Hussey’s start a few years ago. Graeme Swann remains the world’s most consistent spinner. The real strength of the team is in their teamwork. Nobody in their side would be in a current World XI, though the three mentioned above would be just outside of it.

 

England are unable to beat South Africa and have beaten Australia because of poor selections and India due to their poor preparation. They struggled against Sri Lanka and even Pakistan. Their World Cup campaign of win-loss-win-loss, losing games they should win and winning games they should lose sums them up. Their No1 rank is nothing more than a number. They have to do a lot better to get ahead of the top five, let alone to be dominant.

 

India

 

India, as always, rely primarily on batting. Harbhajan Singh is significantly worse than past Indian spin greats, but India have some decent fast bowlers. Zaheer Khan is good while Praveen Kumar, Ishant Sharma, S Sreesanth, Ashish Nehra and a number of others are quite decent. The big problem with their fast bowlers is that they aren’t really fast. At home, they are close to unbeatable, except perhaps against fellow subcontinental teams and South Africa, who somehow have figured out how to play in the subcontinent. Away from home they are improving, but still have a way to go. Their batting still usually does well away, but their bowling suffers. Still, they manage to win a lot more away than they did in the past. If they can just get a genuine fast bowler, they could be dominant.

 

Sri Lanka

 

Upul Tharanga, Dilshan Tillekarate, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene at the top of the Sri Lankan batting order are backed up by a great fast bowler in Laisth Malinga. There are any number of good spinners, including Ajantha Mendis, Rangana Herath, Suraj Randiv. Angelo Mathews, on his day, is also good. But their fast bowling — Malinga apart — stinks. In fact, Malinga himself restricts to the shorter version of the games. Right now they have the most quality spinners in the world. If they are able to produce eleven Test quality players, they could be the best in the world. It’s a testimony to just how good they are that despite not having eleven Test quality players, they are among the best in the world.

 

South Africa

 

South Africa have a very good all-round team that is somewhat classical in nature. They have quality openers, to middle-order batsmen, to all-rounders, to wicket-keepers, to fast bowlers and spinners. Yet, somehow, they are not the No 1 team in the world.

 

Dale Steyn leads the way in the bowling department, though new spinner Imran Tahir looks likely to back him up ably. The openers Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla are in great form, as also is AB de Villiers. Mark Boucher is still the best keeper in the world while Jacques Kallis is still the best all-rounder, probably only behind Garfield Sobers as the best in history. They also have good back-up in every aspect of their team and can cover injuries easily. The team mixes and matches well. They are a very professional outfit too. Other teams have to work really hard to beat them, both home and away, and England especially struggle to compete with them. Indeed, many of England’s best players, such as Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen, come from South Africa, and historically this has been the case for a significant period of time now. They often struggle to beat Australia, though they managed to beat them 2-1 in Australia last time. But they failed to build on that momentum by losing 1-2 at home. Against every other team they dominate, though India managed to keep them at bay in their last series and Sri Lanka have done well against them. In World Cups, they seem to choke and in Tests for — some reason or other — they always seem to be second. “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride” seems an apt description.

 

Australia

 

Till a few years ago, Australia were dominating world cricket. Indeed, even after the retirements of Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, not to mention the likes of Matthew Hayden, Damien Martyn, Stuart MacGill, Brad Hogg, Justin Langer and many others coming to the end of their careers, they still were on top for some time. They are again on their way up. This has coincided with the emergence of Shane Watson, who is now undoubtedly Australia’s greatest ever all-rounder, surpassing Richie Benaud, and is probably up there with Shakib al Hasan and Jacques Kallis as the best in the world.

 

Michael Hussey continues to be a powerhouse while the hit-and-miss Mitchell Johnson, when hitting, can dominate. Doug Bollinger and Ryan Harris continue to be the two best bowlers, though oddly they aren’t always picked, and there are a slew of other fast bowlers who can provide able back-up, though on occasions — for some bizarre reason — they overtake them. Poor selections are killing them with many of the best in the Australian domestic circuit missing out, while a lot of odd choices are being tried out. The insistence to play a spinner for the sake of a spinner hurts them gravely while they also refuse to pick bowlers who can complement each other. But, in spite of all of that, when it all comes together they are still unbeatable. The only other team who can match their all-round ability is South Africa, but Australia have a history of regularly beating them and hence seem to continue to do this. They still struggle against India in India but have no problems against them in Australia. New Zealand can provide some upsets against Australia, but overall Australia are a long way ahead. The real hole for Australia isn’t in any aspect of their game but in the selectors and management of it. One that is fixed, they could quickly head straight back to the top of the rankings.

 

In the next couple of months, we could see England lose their newly attained top spot to South Africa, while Sri Lanka or Australia could also head up to the No 2 spot. India could claw their way back to the top as well. This is the first time in history that we have had this many teams fighting for the top spot. Exciting times ahead, indeed.

 

(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)