It’s finally happened. After years of craning their necks to catch sight of Australia in the world rankings, England can now afford a very slightly – but only very slightly – contemptuous glance beneath them. Because following their defeat in the second Test against India in Bangalore this morning, the Aussies are now fifth in the ICC Test table, one place behind the Poms and – with nine teams in the list – the very definition of mid-table mediocrity.
Such points are made, of course, with tongue near cheek: the players regard the rankings with suitable scepticism, pausing only to confer credibility when an ICC bigwig hands over the mace; and journalists tend to scoff too, except when they want to labour a point about a Change Of Era. But, arcane or otherwise, the rankings do tell a story – the thrust of which every cricket fan has been aware of since the retirement of Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist, Hayden and Langer.
The predictably Anglo-centric question, though, is this: will England really be all that happy, with the Ashes approaching, to have moved ahead of Australia for the first time since the rankings were formalised?
This may sound like a typically English piece of pessimism. Moving up the rankings, after all, is one of Andy Flower’s stated aims. But, as Duncan Fletcher never tired of saying, England prefer being underdogs. It should be irrelevant, but the subtleties of the psychology are not to be ignored: the lower the expectation, the less the pressure. England, preferring not to tempt fate or provide the opposition with ready-made motivation, have never been good at talking themselves up.
Their one saving grace may be the fact that Ricky Ponting has never been good at talking himself down. He bristled when an Australian journalist suggested to him last summer that England now had bragging-rights in all three formats, and it goes against the grain to imagine him declaring Andrew Strauss’s men favourites for the Ashes on the basis of a set of rankings which – for public consumption at least – he will now treat with indifference.
The truth is this Ashes series remains too close to call, because Australian home advantage will paper over plenty of cracks. And yet the cracks are widening. You have to go back to 1988 – and the era of West Indian dominance – to find the last time Australia lost three Tests in a row; and they have now lost five and drawn three of their last eight Tests to India, who have stretched their lead at the top of the rankings but are yet to convince consistently away from home.
Most worryingly of all is that Australia keep blowing it. They passed 400 in the first innings in both Mohali and Bangalore and still lost 2-0. On only four occasions (one of them in the 19th century, one more than 50 years ago) have they made more than the 478 they made in Bangalore and lost. Last year they felt hard done by after their statistical domination of the Ashes. But that gripe sounded desperate then; in retrospect, it has assumed a tone of panicky self-justification.
Strauss cannot afford to allow his team to think of themselves as the likely winners; equally, Ponting will have to erase notions of Australian defeatism. It all adds up to what it really is: two middle-of-the-table sides – one on the way up, the other on the way down – with points to prove and weaknesses to be exposed. I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait.
Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Daily Mail and you can sign up here for his weekly newsletter ‘the Top Spin’, which was named Online Column of the Year at the 2010 Sports Journalists’ Association awards