Top of one-day world but there's still a long way to go, admits Cook

England need to peak at world events, not between them, says Stephen Brenkley

Thanks to the intricacies of mathematical formulae and algorithms, England begin a one-day series today as the world's best team. Nobody believes this unless they are either consorting with fairies or think that cricket is played as part of a software program and it was welcome to hear yesterday that the players themselves have not been fooled with this absurd piece of ICC propaganda.

As the captain, Alastair Cook, below, said when asked if they felt like the top team: "No, I don't think we do. We have a long way to go to do that. It's really encouraging that we've won two series this summer and one against Pakistan at the beginning of the year. It was certainly a surprise when it came through that we were No 1. But for me, as a side we've got such a long way to go in terms of where we want to get to and the amount of improvement we've got to make."

This was a cool and proper assessment of where England are. Between World Cups is another way of looking at it and England would trade any amount of weeks at the top of the charts to win a World Cup, or even its less exalted cousin, known as the Champions Trophy.

Since reaching the final of the former tournament in 1992, no England team has gone further than the quarter-finals; and the final of the latter, once, when it was played at home, is the best they can offer there. If it is also true that some of those sides have managed the trick of peaking between tournaments instead of at them, this one, as Cook indicated, is heading in the right direction.

After winning three successive series since being given the runaround in India last autumn, England will do well to make it four against South Africa. The NatWest Series, which starts today, comprises five matches – with three Twenty20s to follow – and the tourists are at No 2 in the world ranking.

Cook has been the biggest surprise since he assumed the captaincy. His elevation coincided with his recall as a player and was greeted with scepticism moving into the realms of derision. His response has been to score 1,180 runs at an average of 52 and a scoring rate of 88 runs per 100 balls, which places him comfortably inside the world's top 10.

As Cook's new opening partner, Ian Bell has reinvented his one-day career. The change in the ODI regulations, to using two new balls from the start of each innings, has benefited Bell. It means that proper batsmanship will be rewarded and that the maverick pinch hitter is much less likely to reap dividends. Bell has been lovely to watch, with a hundred and three fifties so far this summer.

It is down the order England may be susceptible. Craig Kieswetter does not look especially convincing at No 6. If Tim Bresnan is played at seven that automatically lengthens the tail. But if it is a strategy with risks, it is one they may adopt later in the series. Presumably here at Cardiff they will select Samit Patel at seven, as an extra spin option.