When England plays Pakistan in the fourth and final test of the series this week at the Oval, the Cook-led outfit is in with a chance to leap from 4 to 1 in the test rankings by the end of the match. A 3-1 series win would take them back to no. 1 three years after they lost it – only if West Indies manage to stop India from winning one of their final two tests. Meanwhile, even India – who somehow has always remained in the top 3 despite pathetic overseas results (thanks to extended home seasons) – are in with a chance if they defeat an improving Windies team in the last two tests to take the series 3-0. These drastic ranking changes are possible only because Australia, currently the no. 1 ranked side under Steve Smith, crashed and burned to the 7-ranked Sri Lankan team, losing the series within 2 matches with 1 to go. If they win the last, they could narrowly hold onto their hollow ranking too.
Irrespective of who gains that ranking at the end of next week, it is apparent that test cricket doesn’t have a dominant team anymore. Gone are the days of West Indies and Australia. For a while, it was South Africa – the world’s most consistent overseas team (till they were dismantled and ruined by India last year) – who deserved to hold top spot while Australia continued to struggle in Asia. But now even the Proteas are in some sort of existential ‘rebuilding’ stage (despite having the two best batsmen in test cricket and some solid bowlers), leaving the “home monsters” – teams who thrive simply on their home form to compensate for overseas thrashings – to battle it out for first position. Between 2006 and 2015, South Africa hadn’t lost a test series abroad, a rare feat that automatically earned them respect and a spiritual no. 1 aura, irrespective of whether they actually topped the rankings. Where ever they went, most home teams knew that they were there to win, and would often settle for drawn series. South Africa’s home form, though, remained less stronger than India’s or Australia’s, there by balancing the absurd points-rating system – which doesn’t reward teams based on home and away form, but as an overall annual performance depending on higher or lower ranked teams they play. Hence, when they lost to lower-ranked India last year while being ranked 1, they lost a hell load of points, and were permanently dethroned once they then lost their home series to England. It was the end of an era, and an unfortunate return to the current bane of world cricket. If you’re playing at home, you win. If not, you don’t. Therefore, those with more home series will always be near the top (like India), and those with less matches (New Zealand) will never be near the top despite showing considerable form.
Let’s take a look at why none of these teams can truly feel good about their (potential) no. 1 ranking:
England has come the closest to earning this ranking over the last two years, since their return to form under Cook. Post world cup, they drew a test series against a mediocre West Indies in the Caribbean, and then drew a two-test home series to the in-form New Zealand. After that, the Ashes signaled their revival. A 3-2 series win at home was soon followed by a 2-1 overseas victory in South Africa – their most impressive tour so far. They then dismantled Sri Lanka at home, and are now on the verge of defeating bogey team Pakistan after losing the first test at Lord’s. But amidst all this, after the Ashes, they had once again lost to Pakistan in UAE without winning a single match. This was the second consecutive UAE tour – they had been blown out 3-0 in 2013 – they were defeated in, there by proving that they had still not figured out a way to counter spin on sub continental pitches, despite their flash-in-the-pan 2-1 series victory in India in 2012. This UAE phase remains a blot on their CV, and they will never truly be no. 1 until they win a match there.
Australia, under Steve Smith, has made a considerable effort to play better away from home. You would count their 2-0 series victory in New Zealand as a big step in the right direction. The 2-0 victory in the Caribbean last year isn’t noteworthy, considering the fact that most teams (except England) have managed to go there and beat the hosts. But their Ashes loss in England (3-2 is way too complimentary a scoreline to them) and recent 2-0 effort in Sri Lanka has come back to haunt them. Their vulnerability against quality spin on sub continental pitches has been exposed, there by proving that their recent series losses in India have been irreversible, given that Sri Lanka isn’t half as good a side as India right now. If they had beaten Sri Lanka, it would serve as good ammunition before going to ‘final frontier’ India later this year. But now, they’re in tatters again. And to top it all off, they’re ranked no. 1 – a hollow feeling.
India, under Virat Kohli, won in Sri Lanka after losing the Galle test match, and destroyed South Africa at home – a surprise, despite their terrific home record in general. They had lost 2-0 in Australia before the World Cup last year, and now embark on a long home season where they will host good teams – Australia, England and New Zealand. So perhaps they are in the best position to gain the no. 1 ranking and hold onto it for a year. But none of this will matter, because they cannot win a match in Australia, England or even South Africa, as has been the case on their previous recent tours. Their form in England, especially, has been disgraceful.
Pakistan were in the best position to earn the no. 1 ranking after winning the Lord’s test. They hadn’t lost a series since 2014 in Sri Lanka, and had beaten Sri Lanka again, as well as beaten England and Australia in UAE. If they had won in England (they can at the most draw the series 2-2 now; respectable on its own), few would have disagreed with their ‘best Asian team’ status, and even agreed to a no. 1 ranking. But, alas, the Asian team hoodoo in England continues. They will still only be known for their UAE ‘home’ record, which India arguably does better than them at home.
As a result, our conclusion is that the world’s best test team right now…doesn’t exist.