Cricket: England struggle in the ranks as Pakistan prove major force: Rob Steen on the shift in power among the Test nations as prowess overseas makes telling contribution and Australia slip from the top

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The Independent Online
SHOULD England's late-season revival in the Test arena have prompted rash thoughts about regaining the Ashes, a quick look at the Independent Table of Test Cricket will bring a proper, if sobering, perspective.

Australia, it is true, have slipped from first to third place since we last published the table at the start of the year, but England remain rooted among the also-rans having apparently made sixth place their own. Given there are only nine Test-playing countries, England's prowess at the highest level can only be described as well below average. Indeed, were we to divide the Test nations into two divisions, thus separating the four leading sides from the five below, England would not even have a sniff of promotion.

The table is the only published attempt to rank the Test countries on a systematic and logical basis. It is deliberately weighted to favour winning teams, and teams who win away from home (see table). It takes into account a country's results on a rolling four-year basis, with champions declared at the end of each year. The 1993 champions were Australia, based on results for all completed series between January 1990 and the end of last year. As we build towards the 1994 final table, all results of completed series in 1990 are ignored, while those for completed series in 1994 are added.

Although they enjoyed their most prosperous summer since 1990, by dint of two victories, three defeats in the Caribbean allied to South Africa's victory at Lord's marginally reduced England's points tally. If the gap with South Africa in fifth place is narrowing, it yawns none the less.

England's task, if they are to climb a single place in the table, is not so much implausible as practically impossible: victory in all five Tests Down Under - an achievement only Warwick Armstrong's 1920-21 Australians have brought off in the annals of rivalry between the two countries.

By way of amplifying the point, there have only been five other such scorelines in Test history: Australia 5 South Africa 0 (1931- 32), England 5 India 0 (1959), West Indies 5 India 0 (1961-62), England 0 West Indies 5 (1984) and West Indies 5 England 0 (1985-86). The extent of the task confronting Atherton and Co is summed up even better by a rather more contemporary statistic: in their 32 overseas Tests since defeating Australia in Brisbane in November 1986, England have gained five victories all told.

Pakistan's rise to the top of our table reflects not just their all- round strength but perhaps also the venues for most of their victories. From the beginning of 1991 until the arrival of Mark Taylor's Australia for the series currently in progress (and, because it is unfinished, not included in the table), Pakistan have played almost three times as many Tests on foreign soil as in front of their own supporters.

A rise from fifth to first emphasises Pakistan's remarkable consistency in foreign parts. Since January 1991, only Zimbabwe (three) have staged fewer than Pakistan's five home Tests - and they did not join the five-day fraternity until October 1992. On the other hand, four wins this year in New Zealand and Sri Lanka have improved Pakistan's away record to seven victories in 14 attempts. Of the 100 Tests played during the period in question, 27 per cent were won by the touring side.

With a tour of India under way, and Australia due to visit the Caribbean in the new year, the West Indies, in most eyes the game's pre-eminent force, will fancy their chances of threatening the leaders over the coming months.

After all, they have won five of their seven series in India - winning 13 Tests to four - while their last 15 home Tests against Australia have yielded eight wins and two defeats.

Australia's fall from the summit stems from two drawn series against South Africa, whose determined if rather grey return to the fold is neatly summed up by their involvement in each of the last three series to be left unresolved. The Independent Table of Test Cricket, it will be noted, does not award points for such accomplishments.

---------------------------------------------------------------- 1994 TEST SERIES RESULTS INCLUDED IN NEW TABLE ---------------------------------------------------------------- Australia 1 South Africa 1 (1 excluded*) South Africa 1 Australia 1 (1 drawn) West Indies 3 England 1 (1 drawn) India 3 Sri Lanka 0 New Zealand 1 Pakistan 2 England 1 New Zealand 0 (2 drawn) England 1 South Africa 1 (1 drawn) Sri Lanka 0 Pakistan 2 (Completed series only; *insufficient play to be included) ---------------------------------------------------------------- (Table omitted)