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Though ranked No. 1, are India really the best in Test cricket?

The question is not whether India merits the ranking, but whether the No. 1 Test team can claim to be the best in the world.

Virat Kohli’s boys now sit atop the ICC rankings.

Self-criticism, for Indians, is analogous to antacids. You are bound to have heart-burn and acidity unless you have completed your daily ritual of criticizing the country, its politics, its economy and its sporting figures.

But Indians like to look at themselves as realists. ‘Everything has its drawbacks, as the man said when his mother-in-law died, and they came down upon him for the funeral expenses.’ Thank you Jerome K. Jerome for making Indian cricket fans what we are.

Since the conclusion of the Australia tour earlier in 2015, the Indian Test team has played 8 matches and has, to the bewilderment of its critics, zoomed past several teams that had not too long ago threatened to dominate India. Courtesy South Africa’s horrendous form, Virat Kohli’s boys now sit atop the ICC rankings, thus triggering the debate over their deservedness.

In all fairness, the ICC rankings do follow a structured rulebook which merits victories after taking into account a number of factors including relative positions of the concerned teams in the ranking list. So when South Africa loses the throne to another team, it is for a reason. To doubt the reasons behind India’s leap in the rankings is akin to doubting the system followed, which is quite another issue.

The question, therefore, is not whether India merits the ranking, but whether the No. 1 Test team can claim to be the best in the world. The answer requires the author to put forward certain statistics from the last 12 months.

Only four teams – Australia, England, Sri Lanka and West Indies – have played more Tests than India in 2015. With the latter two going through a period of transition, the reasons behind their poor performances are understandable.

Australia’s win percentage of 61.53 is second to Pakistan’s 62.50, which is surprising because Pakistan has played only 3 ‘home’ matches (in the UAE), which is half the number Australia has played. England’s 6 losses in 14 matches may not appear too flattering, but their comprehensive wins against Australia en route to securing The Ashes, and South Africa lately paint a different picture altogether.

In contrast, the spinners have mostly salvaged games for India throughout the year against clueless teams like Sri Lanka and on ‘doctored’ home tracks against South Africa. Ravichandran Ashwin’s staggering Test figures in 2015 are ample testament to that.

Now I wouldn’t go on to the topic of 3-day Tests and minefield-like surfaces because everybody does that (as Virat Kohli has always been keen to remind the media) and it’s a separate debate altogether.

The No. 1 ranked team does not always claim to be the best in the world

But then, this is where one of the biggest fallacies of the ICC rankings lies. According to the prevalent rules, the system does not take into account the difference between home and away matches and simply treats them alike. In situations where home advantage proves to be series-deciding (as had been the case in India’s whitewash of South Africa), the home team obviously benefits.

Prior to the Border-Gavaskar Trophy 2014/15, India had lost away tours to South Africa (0-1), New Zealand (0-1) and England (1-3). They shone in bits, managing a victory at Lord’s and coming close to one at Adelaide, but never really threatened to do what England had done on their last visit to India.

With the exception of Ashwin, Indian bowlers offer no steam at all on tracks suitable for batting. Bred in the luxury of brief spells in the IPL, the fast bowlers fall short of maintaining their accuracy beyond 4 overs on the trot. They barely know the rigors of bowling their 20th over and still being able to put the batsman in a dilemma.

On more than one instance, the likes of Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma have toiled hard to get the tailenders in at a fairly low score before ending up bowling at them for hours. India has often managed to win three or four sessions before getting all out like a pack of cards and ultimately handing the Test to the opposition in a tame manner.

India continues to fret over away woes

On the other hand, Pakistan seem to be emerging as a serious challenge with their recent domination over England in October-November. They had earlier registered series wins in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

England, on the other hand, already holds The Ashes, the Pataudi Trophy (at home against India), the Anthony de Mello Trophy (away against India) and the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy. They have won 3 away Tests out of 7 in the last 12 months alone.

Apart from Alastair Cook who has been extraordinarily consistent throughout and Stuart Broad whose dream spells of 8/15 in the fourth Test in The Ashes and 5/14 at Johannesburg against South Africa proved decisive, England’s story has been a work of plenty of individual brilliance built around able team effort.

Their bowling unit presents with far more potency than Australia, India, South Africa and Sri Lanka and with the surfacing of a brilliant Test allrounder in Ben Stokes, England is now not just a side that is dreaded at home but one that possesses the best odds of putting up a resistance in adverse subcontinental conditions.

If one were to argue regarding the unfairness of England’s position in the ICC table (at No. 5), he would find enough facts to question the system. With the quality of Test cricket that has been on display from Cook and Co. in the last one year or so, it will not be a stretch to assume that they are the best in the business right now.

As for Indians, the sheer knowledge that they will be dethroned once Australia takes on New Zealand in February should be enough to forget self-criticism and enjoy the glory (even if it’s unmerited) while it lasts.

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