England Number One? Hardly.

Posted on December 11, 2010 by


The ICC Cricket Rankings have been a major talking point ever since Australia began their decline two years ago. India were the first to beat them since the 2005 Ashes. Then South Africa became the first side to beat Australia in Australia since the West Indies in 1992/93. Australia bounced back with a win in the return series, only to lose in England a few months later. That series loss was their third in less than a year and was enough to see them lose the top spot to South Africa. Unfortunately for the Proteas, they couldn’t beat a middle of the table England side at home and opened the door for someone to take the top spot.

Sri Lanka went into their away series in India last year ranked second and could have taken the top spot had they won the series. Instead, they suffered big defeats in Kanpur and Mumbai to go down to number three. They have drawn both their subsequent series and look toothless with the retirement of Muttiah Muralitharan. Down to number five in the rankings, they will need a really strong performance from their fast bowlers to be competitive in the early English summer next year and in South Africa later in the year.

A series win against the number two ranked side meant the number one side was India. The team was in the middle of a period which had them playing the majority of their cricket at home. The ICC Ratings don’t take into account the home & away factor so this was a good chance for India to challenge for the top spot, not that it means India are rubbish abroad. Indeed, they played a lot of away tests April 2005 to September 2008 (24 out of 36) and 15 of their next 18 tests are also away from home. We can call it unbalanced scheduling but it is what it is. As of now they’re the number one side in the world and haven’t lost a series in over two years. They have lost just two tests during this period. A good performance in the upcoming series in South Africa and in England next year might seal their place at the top.

England seem to be a very popular pick for the number one spot among a lot of pundits. While it’s normal to expect Englishmen like Simon Hughes and Peter Roebuck to be upbeat about the Poms’ chances, some lesser known non-Englishmen also seem to have faith in England’s ability to be “the first among equals”. I think England give themselves a better chance to win compared to most other teams. I think Swann is way better than any other spinner in world cricket right now and they have a pace attack with the variety and skills to take 20 wickets on most surfaces against most opposition. Unlike India, none of their players are likely to retire in the next two or three years.

So why do I not find myself agreeing with the pundits about England? Well, India aren’t considered a legitimate number one because they haven’t won a series in Australia or South Africa, or because they don’t have a genuine fast bowler, or because the captain seems be to very reactive (Is there any current captain who can claim to be otherwise?). So how England can be considered contenders for the top spot when they haven’t beaten any of the remaining top 4 sides in their last home or away assignments against them (Australia are 4th in the rankings but they haven’t been updated after the Adelaide test). After all, the ratings system is pretty objective in that it only looks at results and not what you or I may consider the attributes of a number one side.

This got me thinking about how teams have fared in their last home and away assignments against each other. Obviously some of the results may have no relevance now. For example, New Zealand drew their last home series against South Africa but it was almost seven years ago. Similarly, Sri Lanka last toured South Africa eight years ago. However, the upside of looking at these results is you account for teams playing a disproportionate number of matches either home or away during a particular period as we are only considering teams’ last home and away series against each other. For example, the 2008 Border Gavaskar series in India would be discarded as India and Australia played another series in India this year. As a result, the data has each team’s series win-loss-drawn record over the same number of series – 16 (2 series each against 8 opposing teams. I have excluded Zimbabwe as they aren’t playing tests right now).

Australia still have the best win percentage, having won 75% of their series. Unfortunately, their 3 losses and 1 draw have come in the last two years. South Africa have the best win/loss ratio and I have for a while thought they’re the best side in the world if all teams have their best players available. But then I thought the same in the late 90s and they kept finding ways to cheat themselves out of winning crucial matches so maybe they’ll prove me wrong again. India have the most formidable home record of all the sides and it explains why they’re top of the ICC rankings right now. Remember they’ve played two home series against both Australia and South Africa since the last time they toured these countries. While my very rudimentary analysis accounts for such discrepancies, the ICC rankings don’t. But the ICC rankings do take into account the margin of victory in a series as well as the points difference between the two teams so that’s a major shortcoming in my analysis. Either way, England have a much inferior win/loss record than India or South Africa. Even Sri Lanka have a marginally better win/loss ratio than England. Pommie fans may want to point out England have won more series than Sri Lanka, to which I would say they have also lost more.

I understand England fans being over the moon after their recent performances but I wouldn’t go overboard with predictions of being the best side in the next 12 months. This sounds like a cliché but there are simply no guarantees when it comes to sports and England fans should know this quite well. They saw their side go on an even better run from 2002 to 2005, only to see the side disintegrate due to injuries and loss of form. From a personal point of view, I hope I get to see Swann, Pietersen and Anderson entertain me with their aggressive cricket for a long time.


Article by Mahek Vyas