ICC team rankings May 2, 2014

The battle for the top Test spot

While Australia have a great recent record, the ICC's ranking system doesn't take into account South Africa's superior overseas performances

Australia have reclaimed the No. 1 position, but their overseas record, especially in Asia, remains an area where they can improve significantly © Getty Images

For the first time since August 2009, Australia are back on top of the ICC Test rankings. It may only have come about because of the technical adjustment from the ICC's annual updating, but the fact that they were even close enough to the top-ranked team to take advantage of this adjustment says plenty about the improvements they've made since sliding to fifth on the table not so long ago.

The ICC update usually happened on August 1, but since last year the date has been brought forward to May 1, which makes sense given that there's usually a lull in the international calendar during that period, with the England season starting later in the month. Had the adjustment happened in August, South Africa would have got a chance to wrest back the top spot, since they tour Sri Lanka in July (though that would have been a tough ask too, given their poor record in that country of late.)

As it turned out, Australia benefited as their poor results from the 2010-11 period - a 2-0 defeat to India and a 3-1 loss to England - went out of the ranking system, while the 4-0 drubbing in India was reduced to a weighting of 50%. (The time periods for the weightings are as follows: all series that finished between August 1, 2011 and April 30, 2013 got 50% weightings, while all series that finished between May 1, 2013 and April 30, 2014 got 100% weightings.)

As the table below indicates, Australia's 12-7 win-loss record during the first period was the second-best among all teams against the top sides (excluding Tests against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh) - they were well below South Africa's 12-2. Pakistan were 7-4 in this time, but three of those wins were against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh; against the better teams they won as many as they lost - they beat England 3-0 but lost by the same margin in South Africa.

However, the biggest difference between South Africa and the other sides was in their overseas results. In the first period, South Africa had a clean 4-0 record, with wins in New Zealand, England and Australia, even as every other team struggled in conditions they weren't familiar with. However, that didn't win South Africa extra points in the ratings, since they don't factor in the venue for a series. Australia, in contrast, only had a 4-5 record, thanks to those four losses in India (though they had a creditable 1-0 series win in Sri Lanka in 2011).

In the last year, Australia have closed the gap thanks to an outstanding Ashes campaign at home, and an even better series in South Africa earlier this year. However, before that they'd lost 3-0 in England, which means their away record is still a less-than-impressive 2-4. Michael Clarke has repeatedly stressed the need for Australia to come up with consistent, winning performances all over the world, and their away record is surely one that needs a lift. The South Africa tour was a huge step, but the series against Pakistan in the UAE later this year will be as big, given their generally poor record in Asia. South Africa haven't played a whole lot away in the last year, but they still managed a drawn series against Pakistan in the UAE. Their big disappointment was at home, but overall since July 2011, they still have a 15-5 win-loss record, which is significantly better than Australia's 19-11. Even allowing for the 50% decay for the first couple of years, they might still feel entitled to the top spot, based on those numbers, and their consistently superior overseas numbers.

The team which lost out the most was India, which dropped from third to fifth. Given their terrible overseas record recently, that seems a fair position for them, but the drop was largely because their wins against Australia, New Zealand and West Indies in 2010-11 went out of the ranking system, while those against New Zealand and Australia at home in 2012-13 dropped in value to 50%. In 2011-12 they had a nightmare period on tours, losing eight on the trot, and while those results will stay in the system for another year, they'll go out in May 2015. That gives India a huge opportunity to improve their ranking if they come up with better results on their tours to England and Australia later this year.

Test results for teams between Jul 21, 2011 and Apr 30, 2013
      v top teams*
Team Matches W/ L Total Tests W/ L Home Tests W/ L Away Tests W/ L
South Africa 19 12/ 2 19 12/ 2 10 8/ 2 9 4/ 0
Australia 24 12/ 7 24 12/ 7 12 8/ 2 12 4/ 5
England 22 9/ 7 22 9/ 7 10 6/ 2 12 3/ 5
Pakistan 15 7/ 4 12 4/ 4 - - 12 4/ 4
India 21 9/ 10 21 9/ 10 13 9/ 2 8 0/ 8
Sri Lanka 21 5/ 9 19 4/ 9 10 3/ 3 9 1/ 6
West Indies 17 7/ 6 11 2/ 6 5 2/ 2 6 0/ 4
New Zealand 18 4/ 9 16 2/ 9 6 0/ 1 10 2/ 8
Test results for teams since May 2013
      v top teams*
Team Matches W/ L Total Tests W/ L Home Tests W/ L Away Tests W/ L
Australia 13 7/ 4 13 7/ 4 5 5/ 0 8 2/ 4
New Zealand 7 3/ 2 7 3/ 2 5 3/ 0 2 0/ 2
India 6 2/ 2 6 2/ 2 2 2/ 0 4 0/ 2
Pakistan 7 3/ 3 5 2/ 2 - - 5 2/ 2
South Africa 7 3/ 3 7 3/ 3 5 2/ 2 2 1/ 1
Sri Lanka 5 2/ 1 3 1/ 1 - - 3 1/ 1
England 12 5/ 5 12 5/ 5 7 5/ 0 5 0/ 5
West Indies 5 0/ 4 5 0/ 4 - - 5 0/ 4
* Excluding Tests against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe

During the entire time since July 21, 2011, which is the period for the current rankings, South Africa have the best win-loss ratio, the best batting average, and the second-best bowling average. Australia pip them on the bowling front, averaging 28.82 to South Africa's 29. Both teams average well over a century per Test, though South Africa are ahead on this count as well - 1.42 to 1.24.

Among the leading batsmen, there are two South African batsmen - Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers - among the top three, though close behind them is Michael Clarke. Those three, along with India's Cheteshwar Pujara, are the only ones to score 1500-plus runs at 60-plus averages during this period.

In the bowling charts, the four best quick bowlers going around now are bunched together at the top - Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris are the only ones to take 75-plus wickets at sub-23 averages during this period. Peter Siddle and Morne Morkel feature a little further down that list, while Nathan Lyon is in the mix too with 112 wickets at 32.99. Trent Boult and Tim Southee have carried New Zealand's attack, while Stuart Broad and James Anderson have been England's best bets, but the three teams from the subcontinent only have a spinner each to represent them - Rangana Herath, Saeed Ajmal and R Ashwin.

Clearly, Australia and South Africa have broken away as the two best teams going around now. Australia have the top spot by a whisker at the moment, but a tough series against Pakistan coming up, while South Africa have an equally tricky assignment in Sri Lanka. For the best teams in the world, these are good opportunities to prove why they are so far ahead of the rest.

Batting and bowling stats versus the top teams since Jul 21, 2011
Team Tests W/ L Bat ave 100s/ 50s Bowl ave
South Africa 26 15/ 5 39.20 37/ 56 29.00
Australia 37 19/ 11 35.75 46/ 86 28.82
England 34 14/ 12 33.13 32/ 77 32.12
Pakistan 17 6/ 6 30.84 18/ 35 32.56
India 27 11/ 12 33.51 29/ 60 36.41
Sri Lanka 22 5/ 10 30.35 17/ 55 36.95
New Zealand 23 5/ 11 27.62 17/ 40 34.33
West Indies 16 2/ 10 28.43 13/ 36 38.16

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter

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