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The race for Test cricket’s top spot is as even as it’s ever been

Perhaps the dark horse in the race to the top of the world Test rankings is Pakistan, writes Matthew Wiggins

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Back to the drawing board: England were thoroughly beaten by PakistanPhoto: The Sport Review

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For arguably the first time since the ICC introduced their Test match ranking system, the mantle of the world’s best team is wide open.

The ICC rankings were introduced into Test match cricket in 2003 and from that point until August 2009, Australia held the top position under lock and key.

South Africa briefly toppled them in August, but were ousted themselves four months later by India. From December 2009 until recently the Indians could claim to the being the best country playing Test cricket.

Recently England, who played some breathtaking cricket to reach the top, took up that mantle only to travel to the UAE and get whitewashed by Pakistan.

Their status at the top of the tree looks tenuous to say the least. Until they learn how to play spin in Asia, starting with Sri Lanka in March, they will never hold a firm grip on the number one spot.

India, like England, have struggled on their travels having earned recognition as the best Test side in the world. Their superstars are aging and the youthful understudies seem to lack the stomach for the fight.

India, like England, are excellent in the comfort of their own conditions. But ask them to deal with the quick, bouncy pitches in Australia or the swinging ball in England and you discover a very different outfit.

The Aussies are improving fast under Michael Clarke and can be hopeful that their current crop of young bowlers will help re-establish themselves as a force in world cricket, given enough experience.

But it’s difficult not to feel that their time may be further down the road, rather than just around the corner. Cricket Australia have adopted a rotation policy that, while helping them long term, may stutter players development as they all take turns in gaining experience.

South Africa, as is stereotypical of them, always seems to be the bridesmaids. They have been in and around the pinnacle since the rankings were introduced, yet have only ever held top spot for a matter of months. They are an extremely talented side and should give England a fair fight in thier coming series this summer. But question marks remain over their ability to handle pressure in the biggest matches.

All of this leads to a very even playing field, something that hasn’t happened in Test matches since the rankings were developed. An opportunity for someone to take the game by the horns and leave an impression, like the great West Indies and Australian sides of days gone by stares a number of teams in the face.

Perhaps the dark horse in the race to the top, however, is Pakistan. Their turnaround has been quite spectacular. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that the country was surrounded by match-fixing controversy. Yet underneath the unsavoury actions of three individuals, Misbah ul Haq seems to have transformed this once rowdy teenager of a cricketing nation into a wise old sage.

The team play a new, decisive brand of cricket and have been picking up remarkable results. Misbah has a lot to do with it, but the side is packed with quality to back him up. Umar Gul leads the seamers, Saeed Ajmal is possibly the best spinner in the world right now and the batting is a mixture of Mohammed Hafeez’ swashbuckling aggression and Azhar Ali’s controlled temperament.

It remains to be seen if Pakistan can mount a serious challenge for the number one spot, and they will have to play some very good cricket to get there. However, they have all the necessary ingredients to do so and with Misbah at the helm seem capable of rising to any challenge.

It doesn’t take any great insight to see that the side who can pick up wins in all conditions, home and away will rule cricket for some time to come. With India and England seemingly incapable of this, it could be the dawning of a new era. One where a consistent Pakistan ruled the world.

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