Why England Deserve To Be Number 1

Posted on November 20, 2011


By SB Tang

On 13 August 2011, England ascended to the number 1 position in the ICC’s World Test Rankings System for the first time in the current system’s eight year history by defeating the preceding incumbent India in the Third Test at Edgbaston to ensure a margin of victory of at least two Tests in this summer’s four Test Pataudi Trophy series.

This victory capped the remarkable two-year rise of the current England Test team captained by Andrew Strauss and coached by Andy Flower; one which not many observers could have predicted after the Strauss-Flower administration’s inauspicious start — a farcical away Test series defeat to the then equal second last ranked West Indies in March 2009.

However, since that early nadir, the Strauss-Flower administration has barely put a foot wrong in the Test arena — a clichéd metaphor which applies almost literally in the case of Ian Bell — unexpectedly reclaiming the Ashes in nail-biting fashion on home soil, emphatically retaining the Ashes in record-breaking fashion in Australia, drawing with South Africa in South Africa, and ruthlessly whitewashing an Indian side containing the likes of Dravid, Sehwag, Tendulkar, Laxman, Dhoni and Gambhir in England.

Strangely, this rise has been met with somewhat muffled applause from commentators and players across the cricket-playing world. The Guardian’s Andy Bull neatly summed up the varied and manifold equivocations circulating the cricketing world in the aftermath of England’s rise to number 1 and the correct response to them:

Shut down the part of you that demands to know whether England won this series because India’s top players were too old, or too ill-prepared, or too obsessed with the Indian Premier League. Shout down the voice that wonders whether England are only No 1 because the competition is not as strong as it once was or could be. Ignore the questions about whether they will be able to win on the sub-continent, or who their batting reserves might be, or whether or not Monty Panesar is going to be good enough to cut it as their second spinner, if Strauss’s form and Chris Tremlett’s fitness are worth worrying about. The caveats belong in the small print, and can be kept for another occasion.

I find these equivocations unfair — and I’m Australian.

England are thoroughly deserving holders of the world number 1 Test ranking. Here’s why:

1.       The Best Bowling Unit in the World: The Ability to Take 20 Wickets

A world-class batting line-up enables a Test side to put itself in a position to win a Test match and/or ensure that it does not lose a Test match. However, it does not, in and of itself, enable a side to actually complete the act of winning a Test match, because to do that, a side must be able to take 20 wickets — the threshold requirement which distinguishes Test cricket from all the other lesser forms of the game.

Accordingly, although a world-class batting line-up is a sine qua non for a very good Test side, it is not in itself sufficient to create a world number 1 Test side. What distinguishes the latter from the former is the ability to consistently take 20 wickets in all conditions, which enables the latter to win Test matches at will, rather than merely not lose Test matches.

At present, England boast one of the best batting line-ups in the world. However, it can reasonably be argued that several other Test playing nations — India (with Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Dhoni and Gambhir), South Africa (with Kallis, Amla, de Villiers and Smith), Sri Lanka (with Sangakkara, Jayawardene and Dilshan) and perhaps even Australia (with Ponting, Hussey and Clarke) — possess batting line-ups which are, on paper at least, nearly as good.

What differentiates England from these opponents is England’s bowling unit which is, at present, the best in the world by which I mean that it is the squad of bowlers who have empirically proven that they are the most capable of consistently taking 20 wickets in all conditions. This should not come as any great surprise since the possession of the world’s best bowling unit is the same feature which distinguished Test cricket’s two preceding dominant sides — the West Indies circa 1980 to 1995 and Australia circa 1995 to 2007 — from their competitors.

The Strauss-Flower administration typically picks a Test XI containing four specialist bowlers — three quicks and one spinner. In this respect they have departed notably from the five bowlers strategy employed so often in the preceding Vaughan-Fletcher era and instead mirrored the great West Indies sides (circa 1980 to 1995) in the number of specialist bowlers chosen and the great Australian sides (circa 1995 to 2007) in both the number and composition of specialist bowlers chosen.

Indeed, when one compares the current England bowling unit to the Australian bowling unit during the recently concluded and much lamented Warne-McGrath era, it is clear that imitation, whether conscious or not, is the sincerest form of flattery.

Of the three quicks, there is one leader of the attack who is a certain pick and is the best in the world at his peculiar sub-discipline — Glenn McGrath at line and length, and Jimmy Anderson at swing. Both learned to adapt and add more strings to their bow as their careers progressed to deal with situations where their primary skill could not secure the breakthrough — McGrath developed the ability to swing the ball more and Anderson has improved his line, length and control to the point where he is as effective in the crackling dry heat of an Australian December as in a moist, overcast English July.

The two other quicks consist of one near-certain pick with solid batting technique (Gillespie for Australia; Broad for England) and one who rotates depending on fitness, form and pitch conditions — Finn, Tremlett, Onions and/or Bresnan for England and Lee, Kasprowicz, Bichel, Fleming and/or Reiffel for Australia.

The lone spinner in both teams is a charismatic rogue who loves his football club, is loved by the public at large, is always ready with a quotable quote for the media and has, at various times in his career, been viewed with suspicion by the cricket establishment. But, most importantly of all, he is one of the best in the world at what he does, having attained that elusive balance which only a genuine world-class spinner possesses — between control and aggression, economy and wicket-taking potency. Needless to say, he possesses the ability to bowl his team to victory in the fourth innings at will — Swann at The Oval to help England regain the Ashes in 2009, at Kingsmead in Durban later that year to clinch England’s sole victory in a drawn series, at the Adelaide Oval in December 2011 to seal the first of a record-breaking three innings victories on Australian soil, and at The Oval this summer to claim a series whitewash against India. Warne’s match-winning feats are too numerous to list in full but here are some edited highlights: the 1993 Boxing Day Test against the West Indies, Old Trafford 1993, the 1994 Gabba Ashes Test, Karachi 1994, Old Trafford 1997, the 1998 SCG Test against South Africa, the entire 2005 Ashes tour and, of course, the Adelaide and Melbourne Ashes Tests of 2006.

Yes — I just compared Graeme Swann to Shane Warne. The fact that, just over two years ago, that act would have been sufficient to land me in the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane illustrates just how far Strauss and Flower’s England have come in a short space of time.

At the macro level, the current England bowling unit and the Warne-McGrath era Australian bowling unit boast the rare virtue of both breadth (three quicks of differing styles and strengths and a spinner who can operate in all conditions) and depth: when, as inevitably happens at the highest level, one bowler falls victim to injury, poor form or unsuitable conditions, another slots seamlessly into his place.

Australia began their watershed tour of the West Indies in 1995 with a four-man attack consisting of McDermott, Fleming, Reiffel and Warne. It is easy to forget that the two senior pacemen, McDermott and Fleming, succumbed to injury before the start of the First Test in Bridgetown. Up stepped Brendon Julian and an unheralded 25-year old beanpole from Narromine (population: 6,509) named Glenn Donald McGrath. McGrath took 17 wickets at 21.70 in that series, demonstrating the metronomic line and length which were to become his trade mark, and never looked back.

Similarly, England started their 2010–11 Ashes tour with a four-pronged attack consisting of Anderson, Broad, Finn and Swann. When Broad went down with a torn abdominal muscle in the Second Test in Adelaide, Tremlett came in and took 17 wickets at 23.35 in the remaining three Tests, menacing the Australians with his hulking physique, steepling bounce, pace and accuracy. When Finn’s high economy rate and hit-the-deck style were deemed unsuitable for the slow Melbourne wicket with the series delicately poised at 1-1, Bresnan was brought in and proceeded to take 11 wickets at 19.54 in the remaining two Tests, both of which England won by an innings, demonstrating the control, stamina and variation required to take wickets on slow pitches.

2.       A Broad and Deep Squad

At the turn of the century, in the midst of his successful reign as captain of Australia, Steve Waugh advocated and practised a policy of squad rotation in one-dayers, particularly of fast bowlers: “why shouldn’t we rotate. It is in all other sports basically. I can guarantee you, in 12 to 18 months time every other cricket team will be doing it. The sooner people get their heads around it and realise it is common sense the better.

Waugh, a supremely talented footballer in his youth (the late, great former Australian football captain Johnny Warren described one of his Wednesday night schoolboy goals as “a goal of which the legendary Franz Beckenbauer would have been proud”) before choosing cricket, even cited Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United as an example of the successful implementation of such a policy in elite team sport.

Waugh’s policy met with a less than enthusiastic reception from substantial sections of the Australian cricket media and public and, ultimately, it was a key contributing factor in his termination from the Australian one-day team altogether — the rotation of team stalwarts, including twin brother Mark, coincided with three consecutive losses to open the home triangular one-day series in 2002, Australia subsequently failed to make the finals for only the third time in 22 years and Waugh was controversially sacked a year out from the 2003 World Cup.

The passage of time has proven that, as has so often been the case, Waugh’s thinking was nothing short of prescient. For example, Matthew Hayden was not even included in Australia’s original one-day squad for the 2001 tour of India and, had Waugh not rotated Hayden into Australia’s one-day set-up in the early 2000s at the initial expense of his twin brother’s place and, ultimately, at the cost of his own place in the side, Hayden may never have been given the opportunity to notch up 652 runs at an average of 73.22 and a strike rate of 101.07 in the 2007 World Cup and it is unclear whether Australia would have romped to a record third consecutive World Cup.

The current world number 1 ranked England team is not just a first XI but a squad in the truest, modern sense of the word. This summer alone, they have suffered injuries to Bresnan, Tremlett and Trott, but that has not stopped them sweeping India in both the Test and one-day series, as their replacements have proven up to the task each and every time. As such, they can be viewed, ironically enough, as the corporeal fulfilment of the prophecy espoused by their forebears’ greatest tormentor.

At the domestic level in Australia, the dominant force over the past decade, with three Shields, one one-day title and four T20 titles, has been Victoria whose coach, Greg Shipperd, has expressly endorsed a policy of rotation which has been applied to bowlers, batsmen and even wicketkeepers — the Powers That Be at Cricket Victoria could not decide between Matthew Wade and Adam Crosthwaite, so they rotated them for two seasons, sometimes even playing both in the same XI, until the latter moved north in search of a more permanent position.

3.       The Least Worst of a Mediocre Current Crop Is The Best in the World

Perhaps the most logically indefensible of the equivocations aimed at the current England side has been the three-fold comparative argument that: they are merely the best of a mediocre current crop of Test sides; they are not as good as the great sides of the past; and unlike those great sides, they have yet to win on the sub-continent against any of the three major sub-continental powers.

Taking each limb of this argument in turn, firstly, as a matter of logic, the argument that the current England side have merely taken advantage of an on-field lacuna in global cricketing power is unfair — England can only physically beat the opponents who exist in their era. What can be said is that, at this point in their development, they have achieved everything that it’s possible for them to achieve by besting each and every opponent placed in front of them. They can do no more.

The paucity of genuine alternative number ones is a logically sound, albeit cosmetically unappealing, argument. Indeed, when one turns to examine the four possible alternative contenders for the number 1 spot, even England’s harshest critics must acknowledge that, at minimum, England are the least worst of a mediocre current crop:

  • India: One of the modern game’s greatest ever Test batting line-ups enabled India to reign briefly as number 1 from December 2009 to 13 August 2011. Unfortunately for their billion plus fans, their reign was destined to be a brief one as the three members of the Holy Trinity were, at the time of their ascension, the wrong side of 35 and the bowling attack, which never had the ability to consistently take 20 wickets in all conditions, is now beginning to acquire a distinctly pop-gun look.
  • South Africa: As always, look good on paper and certainly good enough to mount a serious challenge for the number 1 spot, but, in practice, still serial chokers who follow even the greatest triumphs, such as becoming the first touring side in nearly 16 years to win a Test series on Australian soil in December 2008, with inexplicable self-combustion — immediately losing the return home series against the same opponent in 10 days.
  • Australia: In transition. Hit rock bottom with the 3-1 Ashes defeat at home — the first time in 134 years of Test cricket that Australia lost a home series by the humiliating margin of three innings defeats. On their way back up but nowhere near reaching the summit right now.
  • Sri Lanka: In a period of even greater transition than Australia. No Murali, no Vaas and no Malinga in their Test XI means that they no longer have a bowling attack capable of consistently taking 20 wickets, even at home. They still have a strong batting line-up but, as explained above, that’s not enough to be the world’s number 1 Test team.

What is all too often forgotten is that, as a matter of logic, the least worst of even a mediocre current crop still equates to the best in the world. As Sir Winston Churchill drily pointed out in 1947, after saving parliamentary democracy and the British state from extinction, only to be ejected from office by the British voters immediately afterwards: “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

Secondly, with the current England side having just claimed the number 1 ranking, it is far too early to be even contemplating comparing them to the great sides of the past, much less denigrating them on the basis of such premature comparisons.

Thirdly, it is unfair and illogical to attempt to diminish England’s achievements by reference to the fact that they have failed to win on the sub-continent against any of the three major sub-continental powers because there is a very good and very simple reason for this — the Strauss-Flower administration’s England have yet to play any of the three major sub-continental powers on their home soil. Indeed, this is the next challenge which awaits England — away Test series against Pakistan and Sri Lanka this winter and India next winter. Any argument derived from England’s putative record on the sub-continent against the three major sub-continental powers must be deferred until they actually have one. As Rahul Dravid pointed out, “they’ve got the team and the skills to do it [ie win in India] but it still needs to be done.

4.       Rational, Far-Sighted and Unsentimental Selectors

I can think of no other major international team sport in which an extra-coaching body determines the composition of a side. In football, basketball and rugby union, a manager or head coach is generally the sole repository of the power to pick the side; sometimes alongside a sporting director (called a team “president” in the US, a prominent example being Pat Riley at the Miami Heat) who is responsible for shaping the long-term composition of the squad.

By contrast, in international cricket, the power to pick teams and touring squads resides with a small body of individuals, typically composed of ex-players, known as selectors, who generally do not include the captain and the coach unless the team is on tour. They, as the likes of Dean Jones, Simon Katich, Owais Shah and Graeme Hick can testify, have the power to terminate international careers at the stroke of a pen.

Accordingly, good selectors are a sine qua non for a world number 1 Test side.

The current England selectors, led by Geoff Miller, have done an outstanding job, practising, whether consciously or otherwise, many of the same principles and policies embraced by Australia’s selectors during their period of dominance.

Firstly, giving the benefit of any doubt at the selection table to youth and having the guts to back their own judgement and the ability of the young player in question by giving him a fair go even when a run of poor form has many calling for his head.

The Australian selectors famously waited 42 Test innings for Steve Waugh to produce his first Test century, a majestic 177 not out at Headingley in the first innings of the First Test of the epochal 1989 Ashes Tour, and were duly rewarded with a further 31 more, including a full set against every Test playing nation. Ricky Ponting went on the era-defining 1995 tour of the West Indies as a 20 year old next batsman in line and was duly promoted ahead of the more experienced Stuart Law when a permanent position in the batting line-up became available shortly thereafter. Shane Warne was picked for the Test XI when he was not yet a regular in Victoria’s Shield XI and he was not discarded like a piece of fruit after a Test debut which yielded match figures of 1/150.

Similarly, the England selectors’ faith in Alistair Cook never wavered in the face of a paltry return of 226 runs at an average of 22.60 in the six Tests of the English home summer which preceded the 2010–11 Ashes tour. Since the First Test of that Ashes tour at The Gabba in November 2010, Cook has prodded, nudged, squirted, pushed, worked, guided and occasionally smacked a total of 1504 Test runs at a truly Bradmanesque average of 94.00.

As for golden boy Stuart Broad, it is hard to remember a prolonged period of time when his position in the England Test XI has not been the subject of intense (and largely empirically justifiable) scrutiny by the fans and media alike. Before the Fourth Test of the 2009 Ashes at Headingley, Broad’s career Test bowling figures read: 52 wickets in 20 Tests at 40.21. Still, the England selectors persevered despite the clamour for their Anointed One’s head. In the final two Tests of the 2009 Ashes, Broad produced 12 wickets at 16.58, including a series-winning 5/36 in Australia’s first innings in the deciding Test at The Oval — a bowling performance so utterly unrecognisable from his previous Test performances up to that point that had it subsequently been revealed by a Panorama investigation that it was the product of a successful joint MI5–ECB experiment to transfer the consciousness of Harold Larwood circa 1932 into Broad’s 2009 body, nary an eyebrow would have been raised. In the three Test series against Sri Lanka this summer, Broad’s figures read: 8 wickets at 48.75. Broad was even dropped for the final and deciding one-dayer of the five match one-day series against Sri Lanka, despite being the England T20 captain and the England one-day vice-captain. Accordingly, leading into the four Test series against the then world number 1 ranked Indians, the pressure on Broad to retain his place was immense. Yet again, there were calls for the golden boy’s head. Broad’s figures for the series against India: 25 wickets at 13.84.

Secondly, ruthlessly and unsentimentally discarding even once great players as soon as they are past their use-by date.

Boon, Border, Taylor, Mark Waugh, Steve Waugh, Healy and Hayden — none of them, with the possible exception of Steve Waugh, retired at a time wholly of their own choosing; all of them received a form-induced tap on the shoulder, whether express or implied, from the selectors. The England selectors have, in recent times, shown a similar flinty-hearted resolve, consigning one-time Ashes hero Steve Harmison to the scrapheap and not only sacking the former middle-order linchpin in all three formats, Paul Collingwood, as T20 captain but dropping him from both limited overs sides altogether.

Thirdly, backing their judgement and having the courage to drop any individual player, irrespective of age, reputation and/or talent, if it is in the best interests of the team.

In April 1999, the Australian touring selectors, consisting of captain Steve Waugh, vice-captain Shane Warne and coach Geoff Marsh, dropped Warne himself for the fourth and final Test against the West Indies in Antigua. The result: Australia won the Test, squared the series, retained the Frank Worrell Trophy and instead of Australia’s nascent reign as the world’s best Test team being interrupted at the delicate moment of transition from Taylor to Waugh, Australia under Waugh were able to strengthen their grip on the crown acquired under Taylor and within 6 months, the Lara-inspired series draw in the Caribbean was but a dim and distant memory as Waugh’s Australia commenced their record run of 16 consecutive Test victories.

In November 1992, the Australian selectors, consisting of Bob Simpson, John Benaud, Jim Higgs and Lawrie Sawle, sat down to pick the side for the First Test of the five match home series against the West Indies. With Boon opening alongside Taylor, and Mark Waugh and Border pencilled in at four and six, two of the four spots in the middle-order remained up for grabs. Damien Martyn’s youth and irresistible form for Western Australia won him the number five position. That left the problematic number three position to fill. There were two candidates for the position — the 31-year old Dean Jones and the 27-year old Steve Waugh. The former boasted a Test average of 46.55, a Test double-century batting at number three and was coming off an unbeaten century and series average of 55.20 on the preceding tour of Sri Lanka; the latter had a Test average of 37.44, had only batted at number three once in Tests and, apart from a two-Test cameo as a bowling all-rounder batting at seven, had been out of the Test XI since January 1991.

History records that the selectors opted for Steve Waugh who went on to play a further 124 Tests, score a further 8830 runs at an average of 55.88 and lead arguably the greatest Test team of all time. Jones never played another Test. In Victoria, we tend to remember that Jones was unjustly dropped; we tend to forget who he was dropped for. On such matters of judgement, empires rise and fall.

England’s reign has only just begun, so it is impossible to make such firm historical evaluations of the wisdom of analogous decisions by the England selectors. Nevertheless, right now, it can certainly be argued that in the years to come, decisions such as that to drop Bopara for Trott for the deciding Fifth Ashes Test at The Oval in 2009 will be seen in a similar light. At minimum, it cannot be disputed that that decision was necessary to enable England to win that Test and reclaim the Ashes. Bopara had only managed 105 runs at 15 for the series, having succumbed to Ben Hilfenhaus’s powers of swing; the same fate which befell his batting mentor Graham Gooch in the 1989 Ashes series when confronted by the same powers deployed by Terry Alderman. Trott was able to better that tally in one Test match, notch up a maiden, Ashes-winning hundred in the process and is now a fixture in the England Test XI, having racked up close to 2000 runs at 57.79 from 23 Tests by the simple expedient of shuffling towards off and prodding the ball to the leg-side.

With the benefit of hindsight, the decision to replace Bopara with Trott appears to be an easy and self-evidently correct one but it must be remembered that, at the time, it was anything but — Bopara had peeled off centuries in three consecutive Test innings in the immediately preceding series against the West Indies and justifiably had his supporters after scoring a mountain of runs for Essex and patiently biding his time for a permanent position in the England batting line-up.

Fourthly, rational consistency in selection and a de facto cab rank rule, which give the players certainty if not fairness.

In December 1995, Steve Waugh was at the peak of his powers as a Test batsman. Unfortunately, in the lead-up to the First Test against Sri Lanka at the WACA, he picked up a groin injury. This, combined with the dropping of Greg Blewett, meant that two vacancies suddenly appeared in the Australian batting order. It was clear that, on the basis of their first-class form, the next two cabs off the rank were Ricky Ponting and Stuart Law. Accordingly, they both came into the XI to make their Test debuts. The match is remembered for Ponting’s 96 on debut, adjudged LBW to a Vaas delivery which was going over leg stump; what tends to be forgotten is that Law also performed well on debut, scoring an unbeaten half century. When Waugh returned to full fitness before the following Test in Melbourne, it was clear that, by virtue of an outstanding first-class record and youth, Ponting (who had already been picked as the spare batsman for the 1995 tour of the West Indies as a 20 year old) would retain his place in the XI ahead of Law. At the time of writing, Ricky Ponting has scored 12,487 Test runs at 53.13, and won at least one Test series, home and away, against every Test playing nation in the world. Despite 27,080 first-class runs and five Sheffield Shields, Stuart Law never wore the baggy green again. Such is the cruelty of selectorial excellence.

Similarly, Paul Collingwood’s retirement from Tests in January 2011 created a vacancy in the England batting line-up. There were two candidates for the position — Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan. The England selectors had already signalled their intentions by picking Morgan to fill the temporary vacancies created by the resting of Collingwood for the home series against Bangladesh in 2010 and the foot injury to Ian Bell which ruled him out of the following series against Pakistan, and as the spare batsman for the 2010–11 Ashes tour, despite Morgan’s inferior first-class record. Notwithstanding Bopara’s strong start to this English summer with Essex whilst Morgan made hay in the Indian Premier League, the England selectors adhered to their de facto cab rank rule and promoted Morgan to the full-time position; a decision made all the more straightforward by Morgan’s timely 193 for the England Lions on the eve of the summer’s first Test. To date, Morgan has largely vindicated the selectors’ decision by getting the job done on the admittedly limited occasions when his services have been called for.

So there you have it, credit where it’s due — England deserve to be number 1 because they have the best bowling unit, the best squad and the best selectors. Nevertheless, like most twenty-something Australian males, I have absolutely no intention of breaking a lifelong habit of calling them the worst team in Test cricket … well, except for all the others.

Posted in: England