England Eye Top Spot. But Do We Deserve It?

It seems a tad bizarre to me, but England could become the number one ranked test side in the world in a few weeks’ time. It’s enough to make the new breed of sensitive metrosexual Australians choke on their chicken and zucchini salads. We just need to beat Pakistan at The Oval and hope other results go our way.

This intriguing development has arisen because the current No.1, our canary yellow friends, lost to Sri Lanka the other day. When a top ranked team lose to a low ranked team, the ICC rankings system really punishes them. The Aussies can still cling on to their ranking if they win in Colombo, but they’ll need to play a hell of a lot better to do so.

If the Aussies fail again, and continue to play spin like Daryll Cullinan on a bad day, the team most likely to pounce is India. If the Indians win their current series in the West Indies 3-0 it doesn’t matter what the Aussies (or England) do. India will become No.1 regardless. However, Kohli’s boys were unable to win the second test in Jamaica, so it’s far from a foregone conclusion.

However, although I expect England to do their bit – we’re as short as 8/15 to win the Oval test with sports.betway.be/nl – I actually have mixed feelings about us becoming No.1 right now. Why? Because I’m not sure we deserve it. I understand that there’s no dominant team in world cricket at the moment, and that someone’s got to be number one, but it’s all come a bit early. Hear me out …

The last time we reached the summit of the test rankings, it came after years of steady improvement, a historic Ashes win in Australia, and a big series win against India. We had a really good team: a settled opening partnership of Strauss and Cook, a middle-order of Trott, Pietersen and Bell (an established combination that had solidity, flair and elegance), plus a world-class spinner.

If you look back to the ICC test player rankings in 2011, England had four batsmen in the top ten (Cook, Bell, Pietersen and Trott) and all four of our frontline bowlers (Anderson, Broad, Bresnan and Swann) were also in the world’s top ten. This time we have Root and Cook, Jimmy and Broady and, err, that’s about it.

Although you can’t knock the recent progress we’ve made under Trevor Bayliss, the only series we’ve won that we weren’t expected to win was the South Africa one. And even then we were helped by some heroic performances from Joe Root and injuries to both Steyn and Philander. I’m not saying we were lucky but circumstances certainly helped us.

Our other recent results have been pretty good but a little up and down. We drew with New Zealand at home, won the Ashes (albeit on some very helpful wickets), lost 0-2 in the UAE and then beat a poor Sri Lanka side at home. I’m not complaining (after all, we’ve made some really promising progress) but is this really the form of a No.1 team?

To be honest it might be better in the short-term for India to beat the West Indies, claim the top ranking for themselves, and then the pressure will be on them (rather than us) this winter. If things go well, and England manage to beat the number one side in their own backyard, then we can talk about England being the best. Until then it all feels a bit hollow.

I don’t know about you, but I still think we’re in the middle of a development stage. Several England players still have their ‘L’ plates attached. The batting especially remains a concern. For example, Alex Hales averages just 29 in 19 innings and most of his runs have come against a county standard Sri Lanka attack. He’s made some technical improvements, and looked better in the last test (albeit on an absolute road), but the jury’s still out. The best teams in the world traditionally have a settled and consistent opening pair. England clearly do not.

Unless Hales gets runs at The Oval I would be tempted to drop him for Ben Duckett. India is a good place to blood openers – the top of the order is often the best place to bat because there’s little seam movement, the ball comes on to the bat nicely, and you have the opportunity to get your eye in before the spinners come on.

Duckett might be a little wet behind the ears but his ceiling is sky high. What’s more, his positive style may complement Cook better than Hales’ more circumspect approach. Bayliss likes Joe Root at 3 because he wants someone similar to Ricky Ponting. I wonder if he’ll see Duckett as someone who can take on the new ball like Matthew Hayden?

James Vince is another player who hasn’t convinced. Although Michael Vaughan thinks he’s shown enough to justify a longer run in the side, I worry that’s he’s too flaky: he does all the hard work and then gets out carelessly like Ravi Bopara used to do. Meanwhile, Gary Ballance has looked better this season but he still hasn’t cemented his place. That means there’s a question mark above three of the top six. That’s half the specialist batsmen!

Although I don’t agree with those who say Vince is too limited to succeed in test cricket (he’s got plenty of shots in T20) I wonder whether he has the right mental make-up? This might sound a tad harsh – hey, that’s what I’m here for – but he does sport a rather gormless expression at times.

Having said all that, the current team is similar to Strauss’ fine side in the seam bowling department. Obviously the spearheads are identical (Anderson and Broad are still strutting their stuff) and there’s exactly the same strength in depth. Whereas we once had Bresnan, Tremlett and Onions fighting over one spot in the team, we now have Finn, Ball, Wood and the rapidly improving Woakes.

It’s just a shame about the paucity of quality spinners available. The last time we went to India we had Swann and Panesar operating in tandem. This time it will be Moeen and possibly Adil Rashid. It doesn’t exactly fill one with confidence. You don’t always need a good spinner to be the world’s best team – the Windies and South Africa have proved that – but it sure as hell helps.

And it most certainly helps in India. Which is why, I hate to say it, if England do become the world’s number one team in the near future, it’s probably not going to last very long. Sorry guys.

 James Morgan


  • You say South Africa was the only series we weren’t expected to win, but people were roundly predicting a heavy Ashes victory for the Aussies last summer.

    Moeen isn’t anywhere near the level of Swann, however did incredibly well against India over here. The Indians don’t exactly look all-conquering at the moment themselves either. If we did make the #1 spot I think we’d absolutely deserve it to be honest, whatever the perceived quality of the squad.

    • Hi Ralph. I guess what I’m arguing is that the No.1 ranking would’ve come a little too easy – and therefore wouldn’t feel as satisfying.

      When we got there in 2011 it was with a very balanced team that had beaten basically everyone, including Australia away (always the acid test for a team). It was a settled side with no question marks. Everyone in the XI was a proven test player with a good record. This time it’s very different.

      There’s a difference between becoming world No.1 because you’re clearly the best side around; it’s quite another to become No.1 because you happen to be less bad than the other candidates. Do you see what I mean?

      • Definitely makes sense. Neil articulates it quite well below, though, was the excitement in becoming the #1 side actually due to reaching the pinnacle, or more because we’d won the Ashes with a clearly excellent team. To be honest, I’ll be quite happy if we can make it this time around, because I feel like we’ve been going through a quite significant transition but proven very hard to beat. Hindsight could also see us looking back on this side and adding Woakes, Bairstow and Stokes (when fit) to that list of great players.

        • That’s fair enough. I know what you mean re: The Ashes. Winning in Australia was always our Everest.

      • “When we got there in 2011 it was with a very balanced team that had beaten basically everyone”.

        The usual moan – they didn’t beat SA, they lost the 2008 and 2012 home series badly and drew in SA with the last wicket pair twice at the wicket. SA lost their place at the top of the rankings because they lost a home series to Australia, largely because of some turbo-charged performances by MJ.

        I’d also argue England had more fortune in the winter win in SA than the injuries to Steyn and Philander. SA cricket is in a crisis through a combination of the Big Three power-grab, the collapse of the rand, the lure of franchise cricket and the transformation agenda (I’d like to see how England looked with a transformation agenda to make the team look more representative – starting with a proper number of players who went to state schools!). The SA selectors also made a number of diabolical decisions (Amla as captain and Van Zyl over Cook as opener in particular) that meant they only had their strongest available team on the pitch in the last Test. Of course England could only beat what was in front of them – which they did very well – but SA were nothing like the challenge they had been in the preceding decade.

        • Hi Simon. Just to defend my assertion, Strauss’ England didn’t actually lose to South Africa during their ascent to No.1 (the period I’m talking about).

          We drew with them away from home in 2009 as you mention, but the 2012 defeat came afterwards when we’d already lost in the UAE and were beginning to decline as a team. The 2008 defeat at home was under Michael Vaughan’s captaincy – it was a very different side.

  • It says more about the competition this England team faces. Have a look at other teams’ results over the last couple of years. Aus have lost to Pak in UAE, in England and now in Sri Lanka. In the last two years England have beaten India, Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and if they win the final test will at least be evens with Pakistan, who haven’t actually played that much outside of Asia, though they did win in Sri Lanka.

  • If we are not deserving of the number 1 ranking then I guess the question is – Who actually is?

    Personally I’ve never really cared about rankings in any era/any sport.
    I don’t see what purpose they serve, they either tell you the obvious (Novak Djokovic is the best player in the world (you don’t say))
    Or in more mediocre times teams/players flip flop and can go from 1-5 in a quick time span.

    At the moment in cricket it’s clear that there are no outstanding sides, barely anyone can win away or in alien conditions and they are few world class players. Could you even pick a world XI and say all XI are truly world class and would grace any era.

    However with England, we have a core of very good players that are finding ways to win more test matches than we lose.
    If we got positive results in India, at home to South Africa and the away ashes then this group of players (providing they hold on against Pakistan) will hold the 4 main trophies that they play for in test cricket. Surely that means more than a number 1 ranking?

    • Hi Neil. I agree that if we win in India and then win the Ashes down under next winter then we’d definitely deserve that the No.1 crown. Until then I think we’d be No.1 in name alone and it wouldn’t really have any legitimacy. It would simply be a quirk of an imperfect rankings system.

      It would also, in a way, devalue the achievements of Strauss’ team. They worked bloody hard to get to No.1 over a period of time and were very consistent.

      Getting to No.1 has always been a kind of holy grail. If this particular team manage to do it because other teams are faltering, it would be a bit like Tim Henman finally winning Wimbledon because his opponents pulled out through injury. (Not a perfect comparison obviously but I’m sure you get what I mean).

      • What were the Away achievements of Strauss’ England?
        Of course the crowning glory was the Ashes in 10/11
        The previous winter we battled to a draw in SA (grimly holding on in 2 test matches)
        In his only other series we lost in the West Indies 1-0

        Hardly all-conquering.

        • That defeat in the Windies was in Flower’s very first series before the rebuild had begun. I can’t recalling us losing a single series after that (until we became No.1). Of course it all unravelled after that but that’s another story.

  • Some very good points, well made there James and not much I don’t agree with. I’ve said in the past (as an ardent Hampshire fan) that Vince always leaves us frustrated in county cricket. A breezy 35 from 32 balls when you are chasing 350+ coming in at 44-2 isn’t what we require and a first class average of 40 is not earth shattering.

    True we are not the side of 2010/2011 but then I don’t think Australia or SA can measure up either to their test sides back then. Perhaps T20 cricket is having more of an impact on the quality of test teams than we first thought?

  • Rankings are as rankings do, obviously, but it does feel like we’ve benefited from a quirk of the scheme because we play longer series at home.

    Overall, I’d be a lot more confident in the notion that we’re no.1 (out of a set of evenly matched, flawed teams) if:

    a) SA’s Test schedule was more regular (I once calculated that they lose out b/c they don’t get as many showcase series as India, Aus, Eng, but I havent’ checked for the most recent period.)

    b) If we’d beaten SA with a fit Philander and Steyn. Obviously you can only beat what is in front of you, but it looks to me like we hit lucky with that series and beyond that we, like others, just win at home.

    Even that last bit would bother me less if it wasn’t so apparent that something has broken in the setup of the world game. I don’t mind home teams winning, but the lopsided nature of games & series bothers me. It suggest player development just isn’t working to develop skills across more than one set of conditions.

  • Obviously there are various outcomes, but if England win series and go number one my observations would be:

    – obviously someone has to be at any one time. It’s more of a question of do England merit it more than anyone else. Given that they would be series holders against every other team that ought to tip the scales. Australia’s performance in Asia (even worse than Eng) ought to discount them and I think pound for pound England have the edge on India right now.

    – in the longer term, to be a really dominant team they would have to show that they can win away in Australia / India. They’re likely to lose the latter this winter and similarly would struggle with the former. If that happens, the ranking won’t last long. As a side point, England apparently still have that 5-0 defeat in Australia “on their books”. When that disappears some time next year, all other things being equal, there would be rather more daylight.

    – a major difference in my mind with Strauss’s team was that they were largely peaking when they hit the ranking in a time when India were disappearing and Australia were at an all time low, and it all rather came off the rails after that point with the emergence of SA. By contrast, there is a younger spine of this team which suggests greater longevity, e.g. Root, Woakes, Stokes. Of course legitimate question marks around some of the younger batsmen, but I would expect them to either swim in the long run or sink and allow options for new talent to come in.

    – the other difference between the two teams is the establishing all rounders. It’s true that the individual rankings point to a lot less “stars”, but these can be a slightly unreliable snapshot at times. I would expect Bairstow and Woakes to be counted among the top ten before long as I think they are performing at that level. And whilst Stokes and Ali are unlikely to get there in either discipline, England now have a few people that can make the difference with bat or ball that they didn’t have then. It means they don’t have to be restricted to a four man attack which they could only get away with before because of Swann. The make up of the team is fundamentally different as a result which makes direct comparison harder.

    I think if the two teams theoretically played now the England of 09/10 would probably win; but there probably wouldn’t be much in it. I expect the result might be different in a year’s time.

    • I think you hit several nails in the “right areas” there. Someone has to be no 1, and there are basically 4 pretty even teams (Aus, Ind, Pak and Eng), with NZ and SA not far behind. If you have a rankings system (and I think it is worthwhile), someone has to be no 1. Is it the prelude to a “decade of dominance” (as Michael Manley refers to WI in 1986)? I very much doubt it. What sets England apart, if anything, is the number of “all rounders” they have: potentially 4 in Woakes, Stokes, Ali and Rashid. That would actually allow them to play 6 bowlers and bat down to 9, which might be a worthwhile tactic in the heat of India (especially given the doubts over the top order).

  • England lack a test-class wicket keeper, off-spinner, slow left armer, medium-pacer and leg spinner, are dangerously reliant on two batsmen and two bowlers, and have a captain who lacks imagination and the ability to ensure his players behave themselves. However, such is the current state of test match cricket that they could well become No.1 by default rather than through ability.

    • I agree on almost all of the above but would just ask if we actually need a world class medium pacer if we have a battery of good faster bowlers. What I like about the emergence of Woakes is that if he continues to improve he may be the replacement for JA as a true swing bowler (and at pace) – much to learn but much shown this year.

      I also share concerns about behaviour – JA can be wonderful to watch but he comes across as being most unpleasant sometimes on the field whereas one suspects that normally he is a decent bloke. Stokes is a force of nature but needs managing. Cook has to manage the fine line between being very competitive and being obnoxious and boorish.

      I agree Cook is not very imaginative but there are some very good aspects to his captaincy. I think Clive Lloyd was a fine captain but not an imaginative one but then with the make-up of his teams maybe he didn’t need to be. What he did have to do was man-manage a lot of talented people and meld a group of those talented individuals from a background of different island states (with a lot of rivalry between them) into one and he did this superbly. Cook looks to have learnt quite a lot about earning the respect of his team and getting them to perform as such – something lacking early on when he took over from Strauss.

      If that is correct, he should be credited for having developed as a captain. I also think he has been proved right recently in many marginal calls – when to declare, enforcing the follow on etc. Perhaps he and the team behind him know a bit more about the game than we do or at least than we think they do?! I like the fact that he keeps pushing about how the team needs to develop over the next 2 years and has much to do. In effect, is he not echoing many of the reflections made here on this and similar threads?

  • There is no “deserve”. Top is top. Rankings are a measure applied to all. Assessment may be imperfect but it does not lie.

    • A very odd comment; as you acknowledge assessments can be imperfect and for this very reason you could conceivably have an undeserving leader. The subjectivities involved don’t negate this.

      To give an example, imagine the ATP tour rankings were measured solely on performance in the most recent Major only. Murray would be top, and Djokovic would be outside of the top ten. A consistent measure applied to all so it doesn’t “lie” but is it fit for purpose as a ranking of the best tennis players? Would Murray deserve to be ranked number one? Would Djokovic deserve to be ranked outside the top ten given his dominance over such a long period?

      • Agreed. There are good and bad ranking systems. Tennis and golf tend to get it right even though they do it differently.

        In tennis the points go from 2000 for a Grand Slam down to 250 for a standard tournament. You hold the points until that tournament comes round again the following year.

        In golf the points won are weighted on the tournament and you hold onto them for 2 years, however there is an emphasis on the most recent 3 months (13 weeks). Points won decrease on a sliding scale until they disappear after two years.

        Murray may get close to Djokovic by the end of the year as Nole has about 6000 points to defend and Murray under 2000.

        Tennis and golf are easy, as the same tournaments come round year after year. Cricket more because you may not play a side for 2 or 3 years or more.

  • They deserve to be no 1 because if they beat Pakistan, they will hold all the ‘trophies’ they can play for. Being no 1 really only means something if you get there and stay for a while, doesn’t it?

    What this highlights though, is the mess that the fixture list and rankings are. Since the beginning of 2012, England has played 18 series and 60 tests, South Africa has played 15 ‘series’ but only 38 tests. Since Jan 2012, there have been 72 test series:

    4 5-test series
    5 4-tests
    27 3-test series
    32 2-test series
    4 one-off tests

    This arbitrary length of series and inconsistent scheduling is one reason why test cricket is floundering. It’s impossible to follow what’s going on and who’s playing who and when. Surely the first step to sorting test cricket is standardising series lengths and awarding a bonus for away wins

    And by the way, who ever thought that a 2 test series was a good idea. The New Zealand series last year, which was one of the most entertaining in recent times, ended after a win for England and reply for NZ. Surely we were crying out for a 3rd deciding test but instead ended up with a slightly unsatisfied feeling? It may have ended 1-1 after 3 but at least we would have had a ‘decider’ to try and split the teams. 2 test series are almost worse than a one-off game.

    The solution for me is simple. Instead of the randomness of 2,3 or 4 test series, 5 ODIs and the odd random T20 latched on, why not standardise tours into 3 tests (I’d do 3 ODIs and 3T20s as well). Each side plays two home and two away series each year against the other 7 of the top 8 sides over a 4 year cycle. That’s 42 tests, which is less than England and Australia have played in the last 4 years (England have played 60 since the start of 2012).

    There are obviously questions to answer about traditional 5 test series and giving opportunities to teams outside the top 8, but there is a level of flexibility in there to add in extra one off tests (England play 7 home tests plenty of years).

    One thing I know is the current arbitrary and random nature of test series makes the rankings a bit of a shambles as does a lack of bonus for winning away.

    • I’m all for standardising the schedule and even reducing it. But the old fashioned cricket fan loves the series and how it plays out.

      Picture the scenario, its forecast to be a stunning weekend in the London, Pakistan bat first on a typical oval wicket and post 400. Yasir Shah bowls them to victory.
      We’ll all be saying let’s have a 5th test.

      So while a standard fixture list feels like the way to go, wouldn’t we miss our traditional summers?

      • I agree with you Hamish in many ways. The only sticking point is The Ashes, which needs to stay as a 5 match series imho. But this would complicate things a great deal. Perhaps they should award the same number of points as the winners would normally get in a 3 match series?

  • All of the above points to one thing – the no 1 spot is very fluid at the moment, precisely because there is no world beating Test team right now. England have their flaws as we well know, but Australia continue to struggle in Asia, SA are weakened by political interference, India are yet to convince away from home (even if they complete a 3-0 win against a weak WI side), Pakistan blow hot and cold as ever and Sri Lanka are still rebuilding after the retirement of their greats. Beating India in India is certainly the acid test – Steve Waugh called it “the final frontier” – but it’ll be much harder than 4 years ago without Swann and Panesar.

  • The real issue is when are the authorities going to bring in a ranking system fit for purpose. The current system is ‘Beginners Statistics 101’ and can produce a whole range of whacky results (and I am not suggesting that in this case). It is similar (in rigour) to the FIFA ranking system which was so useless that the Swiss figured out how to manipulate it by hand selecting opponents to maximise their score – taking them (officially) to no2 in the world.

    The answer is an adapted version of the ELO system used for chess rankings. This is a system which has weaknesses (ranking point drift over time) but has been shown to be a highly accurate predictor of results (and was devised by a serious statistician!). Some object that you cannot use a system devised for individual rankings for team sports. This is not true. It has been adapted and used to rank teams in American Football and by FIFA for womens football (so why do they stick with the corrupted system for mens?). It is time for cricket to take a lead on this issue.

    • What would that take into account?

      I think any rankings system would need to incorporate:

      – matches won, lost, with added weighting towards series result

      – weighting towards recency of results. Unfortunately test cricket, by comparison to football / tennis, needs a longer lead in time due to lack of matches

      – ranking of opposition

      – home / away factor with increased value associated with wins away from home

      – requirement to have played a certain number of matches in a period (not necessarily as much as England, but to incentivise teams to continue playing).

      Anything else? Does anyone know what the current rankings allow for?

      • The ELO system can be adapted to take account of any factors which are regarded as relevant. The current system does not take account of any difference between home and away results. Whilst it does include the other factors you give it does so in a non-rigorous way. An obvious improvement would be to add a factor which relates the strength of the side fielded to the optimum strength team (perhaps measured through the individual batting/bowling ratings). This would avoid excessive points for beating an understrength side caused by injury, politics or something else.

        Perhaps the best recommendation for an adapted ELO system can be seen in men’s football. There is an unofficial rating system published by eloratings.net. The results are substantially different to the official FIFA ratings. A comparison has shown the ELO ratings to be much more predictive of results than the FIFA system.


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