England v South Africa, 1st NatWest ODI, Cardiff August 23, 2012

England's one-day rise surprises Cook

With the top ranking on the line and both teams having different captains for limited-overs cricket this series should retain interest despite the forthcoming World Twenty20

Alastair Cook admitted his surprise that he is in charge of an England side who find themselves officially top of the ICC one-day rankings. The surprise might be shortlived. If South Africa beat England in the first of five ODIs in Cardiff on Saturday, they will overhaul them.

At least England's reign as the No. 1 Test side lasted a year; their achievement in the one-day game might only last a day. When the usual crop of dignitaries present them with the Reliance ODI Shield, Cook would be well advised to accept the award with the most modest expression he can muster.

"I don't think we feel like No. 1," he said. "It was something we were aiming for a bit later on. We've got such a long way to go."

If South Africa, who trail England by one-sixth of a rating point, win in Cardiff they will become the first country to hold the No. 1 rankings spot in all formats of the game, having deposed England as the top-ranked Test team at Lord's on Monday. To retain that position, they would have to win the series by at least 3-2.

For England's one-day side to be seeking to improve on poor displays in the Test format is an uncommon feeling. Until this year, the assumption had been that England's Test side was the stronger, winning back-to-back Ashes series while the 50-overs side was a poor relation, looking as far as ever from winning a major one-day tournament for the first time. Perceptions are changing. This series will go a long way towards showing whether the shift is more than a temporary aberration.

Two replacement captains help to bring some significance to the series. AB de Villiers assumes command of South Africa, leaving Graeme Smith to spend time, between batting, with his wife and a new baby girl, Cadence, whose birth he returned to see in between the first and the second Tests. Smith spent so long grimacing and growling at England's attack in the Test series that if he briefly forgets himself the new arrival in the Smith family could get a bit of a shock.

New captains and fresh faces have their advantages. The threat to continuity caused by a change of personnel can be offset by a renewed sense of zest. A change is as good as a rest and, in international cricket, change is the best option there is because there is little chance for rest. "This is why three captains seems to work quite well," Cook said. "Certainly I'm ready to go again with the challenge of leadership. When Broady steps in for the Twenty20s, he'll really want to drive the team on."

In normal circumstances, it would be Stuart Broad's Twenty20 leadership that would be observed most closely over the coming weeks. The World Twenty20 is less than a month away and three t20 matches against South Africa therefore hold more importance than usual for both sides, even allowing for the very different conditions that will face them in Sri Lanka.

But these are not normal circumstances. Cook is regarded as heir apparent to Andrew Strauss as Test captain, although Michael Atherton, the former England captain, deservedly praised the leadership qualities of Matt Prior in The Times on Thursday, not just because of his fighting on-field qualities but because he was the one person brave enough to ring up Kevin Pietersen - without permission as it happened - and try to bring some sense to a stand-off that has demeaned all who are involved in it.

"After 18 months I feel more comfortable in the role, happier making decisions in the field and in selections with Andy Flower," Cook said.

He has eased himself into captaincy gradually, not as much groomed for the job as receiving a manicure, full facial and Ayurvedic massage; pretty much everything, in fact, apart from colonic irrigation. Naturally, he was asked about Pietersen's part in England's future and twice claimed the matter was "above my head." It did not smack of leadership, but it a dangerous topic to show leadership on.

There is no doubt that Smith runs South African cricket; de Villiers is a well-mannered understudy who knows the extent of his power and who has Smith in the background for advice should he need him. There is still not much doubt that Strauss runs England cricket. But despite the emphatic support he has received from his coach Andy Flower, who does not regard the matter as up for discussion, it is a dangerous time in a captain's career when he reaches an age where he is most often praised for presentational skills rather than the runs he gets or the fields he sets.

Depict Strauss as a successful England captain and he needs to be depicted as an influential performer in whites, not prized as a man offering calming and intelligent off-the-field guidance, however invaluable that might be. There again, ECB officials are open to so little public scrutiny these days that somebody has to be the public face of English cricket.

Ravi Bopara returns for England after a tough personal time and the presence of Cook, an Essex team-mate, as captain, will help him settle back into the job. That his mind will be attuned to the task should not be assumed to be automatic. A planned return for England Lions against Australia A was aborted, a run-out for Essex against Netherlands in the CB40 brought a score of 1 and his guest appearance for Gloucestershire brought three wickets but little reward with the bat.

South Africa have a different feel to the side that capitulated in the one-day series in England in 2008. Instead of familiar faces from the Test campaign, they have more new faces, some of whom have got into trim in a short tour of Ireland.

De Villiers suggested that England might be a specialist batsman light. "It's something we'll be attacking," he said. "They may be conservative up front because they are a batter light, they don't have the wicket keeper at No.7 like most teams. But I can't see them carrying a lot of scars from the Test series, maybe just a tiny little mental factor, but if we don't start well that would soon be lost."

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mathew on August 27, 2012, 12:02 GMT

    I am still suprised by Eng rise to the top in the 50 over format. I would say it is still our weakest link. But this is not Eng fault, its just we are the best of a bad bunch right now. I still feel Ind/SA/Pak/WI are all very good one day sides and any of this 5 could rotate round to the top. Hope for clear skies and a good game come tue.

  • Andrew on August 26, 2012, 12:38 GMT

    @JG2704 - I agree re: Rankings. I would slightly disagree in terms of timeframe. I think it has to be over at least 4yrs as the FTP is so crowded as it is, I don't think a nation can play effectively 18 test series (playing the other 9 test nations home & away) inside of 3 yrs, unless of course we do away with 4 or 5 test series.

  • Andrew on August 26, 2012, 10:32 GMT

    @JG2704 - re: Title Belt. See I don't see it as a problem if say the Saffas lose the belt to Bangladesh (atm unlikely) as great for World Cricket. Why shouldn't a top ranked side be FORCED to maintain its standards ALL the time? At the end of the day, they would NOT be losing their rankings (if they were really dominant), just lose the ability to say UNDISOUTED #1s. My idea would be to work along side of the rankings (calculated under a better method), & a Test Championship! Just so my point is clear, the rankings would be SEPERATE to the Title Belt or Championship. I mean as it stands, what if Pakistan wins the Test Championship? Whilst they have a lot of form on their side & deserve credit for basically playing away from home all the time, but they haven't beaten Oz, SA or Eng in their backyards etc, but should they be Test CHampions if they won, when SA probably "deserve" it more. A Title Belt, like a Championship - is IMO better as it is tangible, not a mathematical formulae!

  • Jason on August 25, 2012, 7:21 GMT

    @RandyOz, almost as good as it is to see you go quiet when australia get thrashed.

  • Dummy4 on August 25, 2012, 4:02 GMT

    The Saffers are an excellent side even in the limited overs;might not be riding a wave of success as the english are,but the mighty fall they inflicted on england should give them that mental edge which you always look for at the top level.looks like both teams start evenly balanced.that said,despite the loss of kp the english batting looks a more aggressive bunch,tad inexperienced but free flowing with the likes of bairstow,morgan,their keeper opener.......the proteas batting has more assurance but the zest that is so needed these days in odis to cross the line is missing,except in maybe a couple of players(ab and albie morkel seem players of that mould)........bowling in odis has sadly been reduced to an exercise in fear with bowlers always trying to hurriedly go through the motions and finish their quota of overs with as little injuries received as possible.as such it's quite useless discussing them.the bowling from both sides will be very bland,insipid and artless.

  • Randolph on August 25, 2012, 2:05 GMT

    How great is it to see Hammond and FrontFoot Lunge go deathly silent again?

  • Randolph on August 25, 2012, 2:04 GMT

    How great is it to see Hammond and FrontFoot Lunge go deathly silent again?

  • John on August 24, 2012, 20:11 GMT

    @Meety - PS , The problem with your boxing way of doing things is that team A could be miles ahead of another team and have a one off bad series and lose the crown to a team which might be well down the pecking order. I mean , would Pakistan deserved to have been number 1 just by beating England when they hadn't played outside of their adopted home for some time and hadn't beaten anyone of note previously when SA and Aus were much closer? Honestly I'm a boxing fan and the boxing rankings system really does not work so well these days. I'd honestly say that this idea would just complicate things further

  • John on August 24, 2012, 20:10 GMT

    @Meety on (August 24 2012, 11:46 AM GMT) I honestly think the only fair way to do it is for the ICC to start from scratch and standardise everything , so that in a 3 year period every top 8 side plays each other home and away in a set amount of tests per series (say 4) and then after that period you'll have a true number 1 and during that period all you'd have is teams placed in order of where they are at the time

  • Richard on August 24, 2012, 19:27 GMT

    @Harmony111: Thank you for explaining the ranking system process. That answers a lot of questions :)

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