Cricket has evolved and so has the attention to performances in it. While the colored version of cricket has a World Cup to adjudge a champion, test cricket continues to recognize the best ‘current’ side via rating points. Today the position in the rankings table has a lot of relevance - reaching the pedestal today has a priority mark in the coaches’ to-do list, players pride on reaching the summit and seasonal fans keep a close tab on other sides as well! It has brought excitement, relevance to performances and a stock-market like buzz to test cricket. Like the crude oil prices, the test cricket pedestal has seen constant fluctuation in the recent past; in the last 5 years the position has had a different recipient 4 times! This is modern-day test cricket - one good season can push you up the ladder and a no clear outright world-beater. Dilution of home advantage or away disadvantage with constant tours or change in the quality of pitches or change in the attitude of players could be the reasons for this but closer observation reveals it has got a lot to do with the structure and outline of the playing elevens!
There is a definitive outline to the way number one ranked teams are built and the position is sustained. From observations for the last few seasons, here are the bare essentials - a left-handed opener, a rock solid number 3, an in-form number 4, 2 fast bowlers & a decent spinner. This could be just a mere coincidence but somehow sides with a left-handed opener have done better; Langer, Smith, Strauss, Gambhir have opened the batting for the number one ranked side. It could be attributed to left-right combination (e.g. Gambhir-Sehwag, Smith-Peterson) or complementing the flamboyant partner (e.g. Langer-Hayden) or something else, but today a left-handed opener is an indispensible component of a test team.
We all know what a number 3 batsman means to a test side, and Ponting, Amla, Dravid, Trott have underlined all those facets. Zoom in a bit and you will find that the form of your number 3 is directly proportional to the performance of the team. You may have a good opening combine, a pivotal number 3 but it doesn’t work well unless you have a run-scoring number 4, who should probably be the best batsman in your line-up! Hussey, Kallis, Tendulkar, Pietersen form the set of players who have converted a foundation into something substantial often during the period the respective teams were conceiving the numero uno dream.
Test matches are never won by batsmen alone; you have to bowl the opposition out twice! All good test sides have had a minimum of 2 quality/in-form bowlers of 2 kinds - one the seamer who is good with the new & old ball and another who is tall, relatively quick, hit-the-deck kind of bowler. Clark, Hilfenhaus, Steyn, Zaheer, Anderson form the set of seamers, while Lee, Siddle, Morkel, Ishant, Broad belong the latter type. Add a decent spinner to back these quick’s and the end product is good enough! Australia struggled to find a replacement to MacGill which made them a lesser penetrative side in the sub-continent. Harbhajan, Swann propelled the respective sides, by being a resourceful back-up option for the skipper, both in terms of containment & as the wicket taker.
Apart from these bare essentials, there are the important members of a test XI whose performances often dictates whether you are the best or the second best! The second opener, the number 5 & 6, the wicket keeper and the first change bowler belong to this category of players. Instances like 100 from the keeper from the side or a spell of 4-5 wickets from the first change bowler and the frequency to such events is often the parameter to distinguish teams. All good sides in the recent past have tinkered around with the number 6 player (like fluxing in a youngster), but have stuck with an experienced number 5 (e.g. Clarke-North, Devilliers-Duminy, Laxman-Yuvraj, Bell-Morgan), one who has the ability to bat with the tail and can customize his game to score quick runs when needed. Gilchrist laid the benchmark for wicketkeepers in terms of batting in modern times; Boucher, Haddin, Dhoni and Prior have traced a similar path.
It is intriguing to find such similarities in the way all recent number one ranked test sides have been built upon. Captaincy and coaching are an integral part of success but often a catalyst in the process and the not the sole reason for the outcome, but stability in that department helps the cause. Modern day test cricket provides the space for teams to take time and build a team, as your competing sides aren’t too far ahead. The similarities in the structure of successful test teams could act as a template for lower ranked sides and help them identify the missing pieces in the puzzle. It is a lot easier said and penned down but very difficult to materialize ideas, plans and have the individuals execute their roles consistently; perhaps that is the difference between number one ranked sides and the fringe teams!