The race is on

Now that Australia has fallen off the perch, the race to become the number one Test cricket team in the world gets exciting. S. Ram Mahesh analyses the top five teams in the fray.

After three decades of monopoly, Test cricket finds itself without a dominant team. These are exciting times, for the classical format is at its grandest when contested by closely-matched sides. Sportstar looks at the five teams duelling for cricket’s most cherished honour — that of being the best Test team in the world.

1. SOUTH AFRICA (122 pts)

For long, South Africa was the second-best team in the world. It did several worthy things, including defeat India in India (which Australia couldn’t in that period). But because its style, grounded in conservatism, didn’t unnerve Australia — unlike India’s which bothers Australia — it was seen as Australia Lite. But things have changed in recent times. Graeme Smith has formed a fine cricket team, whose rise has coincided with Australia’s fall.

South Africa’s series victory over Australia in Australia last year, enabled by the brilliance of the captain himself, A.B. de Villiers, J. P. Duminy, Hashim Amla and Dale Steyn, seemed a tipping point, but Australia returned the favour when it travelled to South Africa earlier this year. The rankings have South Africa at the top, but it’s a close-run thing with Sri Lanka, the only major country South Africa hasn’t defeated in an away Test in the last nine years. Like all teams, South Africa is a work in progress. The middle-order batting is varied and exciting, but South Africa still hasn’t discovered an opening batsman to stand alongside Smith and a young fast bowler to counterpoint Steyn (with Makhaya Ntini fading). To its credit, South Africa has embraced adventure more readily — as seen in Jacques Kallis’ change of approach — and appears to have rid itself of the painful burden of its history against Australia. Paul Harris hasn’t been spectacular, but he has acquitted himself well as South Africa’s lead spinner. Wayne Parnell, who can swing it at sharp pace from left-arm over, could be the missing piece of the bowling puzzle.

2. SRI LANKA (120 pts)

This is a side incubated by Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, two of modern cricket’s most original and nuanced thinkers — little wonder it plays clever, vibrant cricket, ever open to the exotic and the off-beat, but never dismissive of the plain and the industrious. Formidable at home, Sri Lanka hasn’t had the success abroad that characterises great teams.

Since January 2006, the islanders have won 11 of 18 Tests at home, dropping only one series, to Pakistan, but haven’t won an away series in any country but Bangladesh. With this in mind, Jayawardene and Sangakkara have invested heavily in bowlers who take wickets differently, for obtaining 20 wickets in a variety of conditions demands a diverse toolkit. They’ve also persisted with Prasanna Jayawardene, who has claims to being the best pure glovesman in the world, reasoning that his quality behind the stumps cross-subsidises his batting. Although Sri Lanka has won Tests in England, New Zealand, and the West Indies during this period, certain problems remain. The side is yet to settle on an opening pair and hasn’t found the next young world-class batsman; the batting has an ingrained weakness against quality seam bowling; without Lasith Malinga, the fast bowling department lacks oomph; Muttiah Muralitharan cannot go on forever, and Ajantha Mendis appears to have regressed: but Sangakkara and Jayawardene are worthy of the task, and in men such as Tillakaratne Dilshan, Thilan Samaraweera and Rangana Herath, they have mates who will follow them willingly into battle.

3. INDIA (119 pts)

With the victory in New Zealand earlier this year, India completed what it set out to do since the turn of the millennium. The country had earned a notorious reputation for being well nigh unbeatable at home, but a soft target overseas. Under Sourav Ganguly, India began to redress the reputation, winning series in Pakistan and Zimbabwe. Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, in their terms of office, furthered the endeavour. Dravid captained India to series wins in England and the West Indies, and its first Test win in South Africa.

Kumble was in charge of one of India’s most famous victories, at the Australian bastion of Perth. India has made its case by constantly threatening Australia. Over the last decade Australia and India have set up Test cricket’s most absorbing rivalry. India, thanks to its natural style of calm, aggressive cricket, its peculiar ability to play at the level of the opposition, and the confluence of some of its finest cricketers, established itself as the team this era to consistently challenge — and often master — Australia both home and away.

South Africa (in Australia) and England (twice at home) have bettered Australia more recently, but it was India that showed the way, defeating the then champion at its best. Of the five top sides, India appears to have the best balance in batting and bowling. But its administrators’ commitment to Test cricket isn’t as reassuring as one would like, and it will, in the near future, have to deal with a transition.

4. AUSTRALIA (116 pts)

Transitions are tricky things. You can do all the succession planning you want, and still look like Wile E. Coyote, another of his dastardly schemes gone kaput. Australia’s descent from number one (to number four) for the first time since the ICC Test rankings were introduced in 2003 is a consequence of the transition it has been forced into.

Australia has done better than most sides that lose players of the calibre of Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, and Glenn McGrath would. Two cricketers of potential — opener Philip Hughes and left-armer Mitchell Johnson — have found that it’s near impossible to run repairs at the highest level; it’s far too exacting for that.

Ricky Ponting’s worries have been compounded by Michael Hussey’s slide and Brett Lee’s injury-enforced absence. During the height of its dominance, Australia seemed vulnerable to swing and finger-spin, but only if sides could relentlessly pressure it with these weapons. These days, Australia appears threatened by lesser artillery. Enfeebled Australia might not hurt the opposition as it once did, but it must still be beaten the hard way. England managed that recently, but only just. Australia has issues to sort out, but only a fool will write it off. Not only does Australia have the best cricket structure of any country, its commitment to Test cricket is total. Australian bloody-mindedness, moreover, is passed down from generation to generation.

5. ENGLAND (105 pts)

Andrew Strauss’ men have managed more temperance than the MBE-honoured heroes of 2005. It’s an illustration of England’s curious mix of perennial pessimism and eternal hope that such self-control is seen as evidence that the team could perhaps turn into a world-beating unit. England has a fair bit going for it.

Strauss appears a master of resurrection, having restored his batting once and his team thrice. If only he could turn his attention to his opening partner, Alastair Cook. The fast-bowling, despite Andrew Flintoff’s retirement, looks capable in England, thanks, in no little part, to the Duke ball’s prominent seam. The speed gun in the Ashes had nearly every England paceman pass the 90 mph mark — even accounting for inflation, that’s serious pace, always a useful quality. But it remains to be seen how England’s faster bowlers do in conditions that don’t assist a conventional swing-and-seam attack. Graeme Swann’s off-spin will be key to England’s chances abroad, particularly in the sub-continent, where its recent record is woeful.

England will draw great strength from the fight its lower-order has put up, a legacy, no doubt, of former coach Duncan Fletcher’s obsession with numbers seven and eight. The middle-order is another matter however. Kevin Pietersen’s return from injury will help, Jonathan Trott showed much on debut, but there’s little else. A hybrid of Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood, as someone suggested, would have been a super batsman, but individually, despite flattering — in different ways — they haven’t done enough. England, as a team, isn’t dissimilar: when good, they look better than they are and when bad, worse.