ICC Test rankings: It’s an open race

The key to performing consistently well overseas in Test cricket and winning matches is the quality of your bowlers. Batsmen, especially in the modern era where they are so exposed to different conditions, can and should adapt to unfamiliar conditions. You can work out ways of scoring and putting runs on the board. But it can be a tougher challenge for the bowlers.

South Africa's players celebrate after dismissing Australia's captain Steve Smith during the first Test match at the WACA Ground in Perth. South Africa is entering a transition phase in Test cricket.   -  REUTERS

We are entering the busiest season of the year with Test series to be played all around the world. It’s an exciting time of the year with England visiting India, South Africa in Australia and Sri Lanka soon to tour South Africa. It will also be a very important period in terms of the ICC Test rankings with a handful of teams battling for supremacy.

During the 1980s, world cricket was dominated by the mighty West Indies and thereafter there was a period of dominance from the great Australian teams led by Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting. However, since then, cricket’s world order has changed and there has been no dominant team, able to claim and retain the No. 1 status for any length of time.

What we have now are five teams in the top half of the ICC table that are moving up and down. India, Pakistan, England, Australia and South Africa are all strong and equally matched. They also have a common weakness: they are not able to consistently win away from home in unfamiliar conditions. The great West Indies and Australian teams travelled the world and largely conquered — although even Australia struggled in India — but right now no team can claim to be as effective away as at home.

The key to performing consistently well overseas in Test cricket and winning matches is the quality of your bowlers. Batsmen, especially in the modern era where they are so exposed to different conditions, can and should adapt to unfamiliar conditions. You can work out ways of scoring and putting runs on the board. But it can be a tougher challenge for the bowlers.

If you look at the last great Australia team, they travelled with Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill, a deadly leg-spinning duo, backed up by Glenn McGrath and Jason Gillespie (and various other top-class fast bowlers). They could all take wickets on any surface. This is true of any great bowler and right now the obvious examples are guys like Dale Steyn and Mitchell Starc, who can be as potent in Asia as the rest of the world.

No current team though has that kind of firepower at their disposal right now, although they are all working hard to develop their bowlers and reach that stage. That is the great challenge for all the modern teams.

So who is going to emerge as the leading Test team in the coming few years? Well, that’s a difficult question to answer, but what I would say is that India, England and Australia have the advantage of youth on their side. They all have some very exciting young players developing very fast and that gives them each the potential to rise to the top.

Pakistan and South Africa face greater challenges because they are entering transition phases. You take out Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan from the Pakistan Test team and there is obviously a big hole to fill. They do at least have very talented young players who can be long-term replacements with time. South Africa, too, have several key players in the mid-30s and that is going to be a challenge for them.

Meanwhile, in the lower half of the table, you have Sri Lanka rebuilding and showing some really positive signs with their recent whitewash of Australia at home. It will be fascinating to see how they face-up to the challenge of touring South Africa over Christmas and New Year. New Zealand also have some very good players and they can push the sides in the current top five.

It will be a fascinating few months as we see how different teams perform. There is likely to be a lot of movements up and down the ICC rankings, at least until one team is able to assemble a truly world-class bowling attack.