April 8, 2012

The curse of No. 1

Neither India nor England have been convincing at the top of the Test rankings, and narrow vision has prevented South Africa from getting there. But it's not a bad thing for the fan

Following 25 years of domination, first by West Indies and then Australia, the top ranking in Test cricket has suddenly become a slip zone.

Where both India and then England took steady steps, rising one rung at a time to reach the top, on arrival at the pinnacle they have encountered uncertainty. While India proceeded to slither down a greasy fireman's pole, England are currently clinging on grimly with closely clipped fingernails.

Why the sudden problems for the team rising to the top? In India's case they were always destined for a short stay because they reached the pinnacle with batting strength and only steady bowling. To dominate, a team requires not only bowling strength but also depth, and India possessed neither as they sought to conquer a variety of conditions and remain a power. They were also a team built for home conditions, and travelled about as well as seafood salad in the tropics.

England, on the other hand, have a strong, well-balanced attack, with some quality replacements. They are equipped to win away from home, which they did admirably in Australia. Their Achilles' heel has been batting, and more particularly the inability to conquer their spin demons. A general lack of footwork and the-sweep-is-the-answer-to-any-question-posed-by-a-spin-bowler mentality has seen them struggle on slower surfaces.

Despite their batting woes in four consecutive losses, England remained competitive in all those contests thanks to the tireless efforts of their bowlers.

The big difference between India and England and the two sides that dominated before them has been that while West Indies and Australia were far more complete teams, flaws have been exposed in the newer No. 1s.

However, the overall result for the game has been a much more interesting competition since Australia's dominance began to wane following the 2005 Ashes loss. There is now very little between the top six sides and one bad day can lead to an upset. Contrast that with a 25-year period where there were very few challengers to West Indies and then Australia, when predicting series results was simpler than forecasting the daily temperature in Barbados.

The one team that should have been more dominant in the last few years, especially since the addition of Imran Tahir's legbreaks to the mix, is the often disappointing South Africa. They have failed to develop fully under Graeme Smith's rather narrow leadership vision. A bristling pace attack, a decent legspinner and one of the game's great allrounders, complemented by a solid batting line-up, should be enough to regularly beat all-comers in this era of flawed opposition. However, since they beat Australia at the MCG in 2008-09 to clinch their first series victory in that country, South Africa have won only a meagre 38% of their Test matches. It's not too late for South Africa to shed their underachievers' tag, but to win consistently they'll require more aggressive leadership.

It's not enough to just possess a strong attack; the bowlers need to be complemented by positive captaincy. Andrew Strauss is also a conservative leader, and at times he tends to wait for something to happen rather than to try and provoke a mistake. This has hurt England during their recent struggles because the fragile batting line-up has needed to be chasing as few runs as possible.

India are likely to struggle for traction on the greasy pole for a while yet. Their batting mastery is a thing of the past and they only have a moderate attack. When they eventually get around to rebuilding it'll require a new leader with fresh ideas to inspire. Virat Kohli is emerging as a likely candidate.

Australia are currently experiencing a surge on the back of a strong young pace attack and an extremely positive leader in Michael Clarke. However, the looming departure of Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey will leave their batting with an air of vulnerability and a far less threatening aura.

This all leads to the conclusion that the status quo is likely to be maintained, with the struggle for the No. 1 ranking retaining a "fire-and-fall-back" feel. It's a far cry from and a big improvement on the days of dominance.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Derek on April 11, 2012, 13:09 GMT

    jay57870. What a pile of steaming Snow Whites you left. Chappell never suggested Australia were likely to make it back to the top - in fact he made the point the impending loss of Ponting and Hussey would leave their batting looking fragile. England and India HAVE failed to look like a No1 side as they were beaten heavily in away series and SA HAS disappointed with the quality of side they possess on paper. Where's the fairy tale? He told it like it is - look into yourself if you view the truth with such suspicion.

  • David on April 11, 2012, 12:54 GMT

    Deuce03, brittop and clarke 501. My objection to ranking points being awarded in the case of a a rain caused draw is not specific to ENG and SA. They are simply pertinent examples. My objection is that penalizing or rewarding a team based on the weather is, quite frankly, simply stupid. In a system where points are awarded relatively, not empirically, where success is gauged in relation to the prior performance of each team, and weighted to level the playing field, allowing the vagaries of weather to determine an outcome of a test is as useful as throwing dice. A test is a draw if one ball is bowled and no more play occurs - check the rules, I kid you not. And whatever team is ahead in the rankings would get penalized. That cannot be any way be considered fair, or useful!

  • Jay on April 10, 2012, 13:30 GMT

    Ian is obviously confused about his alter-ego: Is it Snow White or Pollyanna or Cinderella ? Spooked by "the curse of No.1," Ian's trying desperately to banish the evil spirit that vexed his mighty Aussie juggernaut. With his oft-failed smoke-and-mirror Snow-White charm (remember Tendulkar), he casts bad juju on India & England as mere pretenders to the throne. And South Africa as a failed imposter. Re: his own Aussies, he's Pollyanna-ishly upbeat that Michael Clarke will mastermind a masterful plot to overthrow the hated Poms and usurp the crown. Still, Ian laments about the lost OZ dynasty. So, out of the blue, he conjures this half-baked illusion: "There is now very little between the top six sides and one bad day can lead to an upset"? Meaning a coup? By whom? Top 6? Confused? Let's do some simple Chappell math: subtract the 4 he's named, remainder 2. But who? The plot thickens: Is it WI or PK or BD or NZ? Gotcha! OMG, they're all Cinderellas! Still confused, Ian?

  • Russel on April 10, 2012, 12:18 GMT

    I guess srilanka did not show the commitment to win the second test against england

  • Tom on April 10, 2012, 10:40 GMT

    @Greatest_Game: Points in the ranking system are calculated relatively, not empirically. SA (#2) drew against NZ (#8) whereas England last summer (#3) drew against Sri Lanka (#4). If both series end 1-0 you'd expect England to gain more points than SA, because their opponent was closer to their level. The system isn't perfect (no system is) but it's not rigged either. In fact the player ranking system have generally worked in favour of SA players for the last year or so.

  • Phil on April 10, 2012, 10:36 GMT

    @Greatest_game: So SA should have been less defensive in the third test v NZ. So you would ignore rain affected matches - how many overs would have to be lost before that kicked in? Also if a team managed to defeat another in less overs than your cut-off point, wouldn't that make your cut-off point look dubious?

  • Cricinfouser on April 10, 2012, 10:07 GMT

    @Greatest_Game - The fact remains that a 1-0 series win against NZ is worth a lot less than against SL. It may not be entirely fair to SA but it's nonsense to state that the whole rankings system is 'fatally flawed' on the basis of the points allocation for these two series. A system which reflects what we all know is true (that there is no clear number 1 at the moment) cannot surely be that bad.

  • Dave on April 10, 2012, 9:52 GMT

    @csowmi7. re. 'Achieving the number one ranking can only be done by thoroughly beating one of the top 3 teams. India achieved it by beating Sri Lanka 2-0 in 2008 when they were a formidably force`.

    India actually lost 2-1 in SL in 2008, and won the next series at home 2-0. Sure, SL were high in the rankings at the time, far too high for a team which hasn`t won an away series against anyone apart from Bangladesh or Zimbabwe for over a decade. I think if SL had achieved the No.1 ranking - and they had a couple of chances against India to do this - the outcry would have been such that the ICC would have had to reconsider how the rankings were calculated.

    Anyway, a 2-0 home win against Sri Lanka hardly counts as a result to base your claims for world dominance on does it?

  • Dummy4 on April 10, 2012, 7:00 GMT

    Did someone say England winning in India?? I don't think so . . . The English are a very good team and deserving of the no. 1 ranking; there is no argument there, but India is the better team in India. I am also favouring SA to win the series in England; I just have this funny feeling that the Proteas are going to win this series. They certainly have the will and the talent to do it! That will make SA no.1 and this time I sincerely hope that they can hold on to it for longer than 3 months.

  • sowmi on April 10, 2012, 4:36 GMT

    @jmcilhinny You're absolutely right. Achieving the number one ranking can only be done by thoroughly beating one of the top 3 teams. India achieved it by beating Sri Lanka 2-0 in 2008 when they were a formidably force. While England beat India 4-0. India's ascent to the top was a tough journey winning series all over the world and hardly losing from 2003. We won 8 series between 2008-2011 while we were at top drawing 3 and losing none. England have also been great in the past 4 years. They won in 2005 in SA, won the Ashes in 2005, in 2009 2-1 and now in 2011 2-1 as well as a 4-0 rout of India. Until removed from the number one spot the team there deserves it completely and all it means is that their results are better than the rest at the moment. The India England series should be good as no team has ever done well in India. India was the only country where the great Aussie team faltered. India is still the final frontier.

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