England have lost by 75 runs to Sri Lanka and thus need to win the next Test to stay number one in the world. I’ll mention what I think they need to do later/tomorrow, but right now I think there is a good question about whether England ‘should’ be number one or not. It’s something that has come up a few times on Twitter, albeit usually in the form of a snide remark by a South African/Australian/Indian. (Who, strangely, have not usually shown an actual desire to discuss the topic.) The obvious point is that England have lost four Tests in a row since officially becoming number one last August and in any sport it is very hard to do that and still justify being considered the best in the world. Even if England win the last Test, the question will remain after what has been a very poor winter and unless/until England convincingly win a series in the subcontinent there will certainly still be suggestions that England are not the true ‘number one’ side.
Cricket is already unique amongst international sport with its wide range of conditions and possible results, but it is also in a unique situation where the ‘number one’ question is more than usually pertinent. Cricket has had two dynasties that have stretched most of the past 30+ years: the West Indies and then Australia. I had already noticed (even last summer) that there were those who said that England could not be number one until they matched those two teams. That is patently absurd, of course. The fact that almost no team in any sport ever achieved that kind of domination is what made the West Indies and Australia so special. I don’t think most people would claim that modern teams have to match those two greats, but I do think their legacy runs deeper than is obvious. Most do not say that England have to establish worldwide dominance to be number one, but there are still suggestions that a number one side ‘should’ do certain things. (Win in all conditions being the usual one.) But that is rubbish too. The number one side, by definition, is simply the side that is better than all the other sides. Right now, no side (apparently) can win in all conditions, but we cannot simply have no number one side just as a domestic league cannot be without a table topper.
The question then is whether England are better than all other sides. There is not an obvious answer to that. The nearest, and probably only, competitor is South Africa and they have had problems too. South Africa have not won a series on the subcontinent since beating Pakistan in 2007. They have won only one series at home since the start of 2008, against Sri Lanka this year. England beat Sri Lanka at home too, plus India; Pakistan and Australia. On results one could not say that South Africa are better than England, but the recent ones make it very hard to say that South Africa are worse too. Officially, if England do not win the next Test our run of poor form will have been bad enough to go below South Africa. That’s fair enough, but I don’t think South Africans can feel hard done by if England win and stay at the top. (Just as they could not, or at least should not have, when they failed to beat New Zealand.) England don’t look like the best side in the world right now, but South Africa have hardly pushed for the title.
Luckily, the fixture list has been kind and the issue can be settled head-to-head this summer. Though the series is still too short.