Amid the endless rounds of bi- and tri-lateral tournaments that dominate the cricket calendar, there are really only two honors that the major cricket-playing nations covet. One is to win the quadrennial World Cup, which uses the one-day (50-over) form of the game and is a knockout competition. The other is to be the best Test team in the world—a position that requires excellence over a certain length of time, and right now appears to be cursed.
From the 1970s to the late 2000s, it was pretty obvious which countries were the best Test teams: Australia (1975–1979), West Indies (1980–1995), and Australia again (1996–2009). True, these teams may have lost the occasional series; but, rankings aside, they consistently produced winning results and overwhelmed their opponents with what we might call “total cricket.” They were simply much, much better than everyone else.
In the last couple of years, however, the cricketing order has been overturned. The West Indies went into a steep decline in the late 1990s; the once-in-a-generation talent that propelled Australia to the top retired. Into the breach stepped India, winning the 2011 World Cup and beating their opponents often enough to take the Test number one slot. It seemed that India could do no wrong; it turned out that they could do no right. The side promptly lost virtually every game they played, which as of January 2012, allowed England to vault into their spot at the top.
England have now lost four Test matches in a row, the most recent of which was to Sri Lanka. To lose one or two games may be considered a misfortune, but four in a row looks like complacency, and England are now almost certain to lose their number-one ranking to a steadily resurgent South Africa. Given what happens to a side when it reaches number one these days, the Proteas may not be relishing the prospect.