First India, now England. For the second time in eight months, the No. 1 Test team has lost each Test of an away series. Not just lost, in fact, but has been drubbed, humiliated and whitewashed to such a degree that one may be forced to wonder whether the top ranking carries with it a peculiar, collapse-inducing jinx, or whether the entire system of ICC rankings is a load of hogwash.
Crucially though, both the crushing defeats came on overseas tours, which leads to the perhaps more reasonable assumption that while the top teams are formidable opponents at home, they are struggling miserably in unfamiliar conditions – so much so, that any claims at world domination currently seem as unfounded and fanciful as the idea that India will someday win a Test series in Australia. (Ten series have come and gone since India's first tour of the country in 1947-48, yet a series success has proved elusive.)
Of course, winning matches away from home, never mind a whole series, has always been tough. But the last team that could truly claim to be the world's best was the Australia of Steve Waugh, Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. And their reputation was built not just on home successes, but hard-fought wins in tough conditions in the West Indies (2003), Sri Lanka (2004), New Zealand (2005), South Africa (2006, 2008-09), and the 'Final Frontier' of India (2004-05).
The new contenders for the top spot, thus, have much to prove before they can lay claim to the mantle vacated by the Australians. No one, it seems however, is quite ready yet to grab the bull by the horns.
Currently leading the rankings – though only just – are England, who achieved the honour after a 4-0 series sweep against then-No. 1 India, which came on the back of a home win over Sri Lanka and more significantly, a first Ashes victory in Australia in 24 years. There was talk that England had found their best-ever Test side and that it was perhaps time – at last – for a period of English domination. Their first tour since on the subcontinent (or at least, in similar conditions in the UAE) and suddenly the batting line-up, boasting of the likes of Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen, finds itself battling old demons against spin.
England will want to avoid over-reaction, given that this was their first series defeat since 2009 and the bowling unit – including two spinners – still did itself credit against Pakistan. Andrew Strauss' team might even hold onto the top spot, with West Indies and current No. 2 South Africa due to visit England later this year. However, given that it has been more than ten years since England last won a Test series in the subcontinent (in Pakistan in 2000-01 and Sri Lanka in 2001), the Test series in Sri Lanka and later India will provide a better indication of just how good this England team can be.
India, meanwhile, will be desperate to return to the comforts of home after a torrid run of eight consecutive overseas Tests without victory. Luckily for them, their next away series won't be until 2013, which means they do have a realistic chance of returning to the top spot. However, few are likely to be fooled this time around.
Either side of India becoming No. 1 in 2009, there were at least series wins in England (2007) and New Zealand (2009) and a creditable draw in South Africa (2010-11) to savour. Three years on, half of that side is on the verge of retirement, and there are question marks over the replacements as well as skipper MS Dhoni. With India set to enter a period of transition – and it will not be easy to fill the gaps left by Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Zaheer Khan – and with their bowling and fielding yet to achieve world-class standard, the focus is likely to be on rebuilding rather than global supremacy.
Pakistan can make a rightful claim to being genuine contenders, having won eight and lost just one of 15 Tests since Misbah-ul-Haq took over in October 2010. However, the only top-five team they have faced in that run is England, and none of the matches have been played away from the subcontinent or the Middle East, barring Zimbabwe. Though one of the more stable Pakistan sides in recent memory, like India, they too need to show their worth in more testing away conditions, and upcoming tours of South Africa and New Zealand should provide an opportunity to continue down the path of redemption since the dark days of the spot-fixing scandal.
Then there's South Africa, who could actually end up with the No. 1 ranking and the accompanying ICC jackpot should they whitewash New Zealand 3-0. However, as always, the Proteas seem to falter just when on the cusp of greatness. A chance to beat an in-transition Australia, albeit again at home, went begging last year, and even a home series win over an even-weaker Sri Lanka was tempered by a 208-run defeat at Kingsmead. Armed with talented batsmen and a potent pace bowling line-up, not to forget a rare spinner in Imran Tahir, South Africa, nevertheless, need to maximize their potential more consistently before the ghost of the mental fragility that has long been associated with them is exorcised.
Consistency was a problem for Australia – as the manic Test in Cape Town and a demoralizing loss to New Zealand in Hobart showed – until they came up against an insipid India. The comprehensive wins that followed show that Australia are – as skipper Michael Clarke put it – "on the way up". Of course, they will face tougher opponents than India, including an Indian side in India, and there are still relevant doubts over the batting, especially when Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey do finally call it a day. However, they once again seem to have unearthed a slew of highly promising fast bowlers in Pat Cummins, James Pattison and Mitchell Starc, to go with the likes of Ben Hilfenhaus, Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle; while ominously, the team seems to have found its unbeatable spirit under an increasingly comfortable Clarke.
Any of these top five sides could end the year as No. 1, given that only seven points separate the top four in the current rankings, while fifth-placed Pakistan have reduced the gap with England to only 10. However, until one of them shows the same kind of character away from home – and the Aussies look the most likely as of now – the title of the world's best Test side is still up for grabs.