England can be No 1 but will KP be No 4?

Pietersen's place could come under scrutiny this summer when Strauss's men should beat Sri Lanka and India to rule the world
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Five months ago, on a hazy Sydney afternoon, England were on top of the world. The completion of a 3-1 drubbing of Australia, all of their wins by an innings, was the stuff of sporting immortality.

For all the startling quality of their play, however, there is a difference between being on top of the world and being the No 1 ranked side in it. That is the task that awaits England this summer. If they can beat both Sri Lanka and India in Test series of three and four matches respectively, they will be officially rated for the first time as the best side. It is also the first time that such a leap has been within their scope.

They ought to defeat Sri Lanka in the rubber that begins in Cardiff on Thursday despite the strength of the tourists' batting and the threat of bland pitches. India, at present No 1, represent a more formidable foe, but the way England played in Australia makes anything possible, especially in their own conditions.

It is a pity that the homecoming of the heroes should be at Sophia Gardens. Ticket sales have been on the down side of sluggish and reduced prices are already being offered. This is not what England deserve or have a right to expect and their employers might consider examining their policy, not to mention their cricketing consciences.

The opening match of the 2009 Ashes, the first Test held in Cardiff, was triumphantly staged. But that does not make the ground a natural haven for Test cricket and the response of the Welsh public suggests that they think likewise.

Of the seven Test matches being played on these shores this summer, none is further north than Nottingham. Old Trafford, which is a buildingsite anxiously awaiting redevelopment, Headingley and the Riverside have only one-day internationals. There are four Tests in the south, three of them in London. This is at best unwise.

The confidence that England should have gained from their Ashes triumph should not have been tainted by their indifferent one-day performances since. Under Andrew Strauss they have developed a strategy based on the virtues of hard work and meticulous planning. They also know what kind of player they want, a point that goes beyond form.

There will be enforced changes in the team that finished off Australia. Paul Collingwood has retired from Test cricket while Tim Bresnan has torn a calf muscle, a recurrence of the injury that curtailed his winter.

Collingwood will be replaced, at least in the short term, by Ravi Bopara, who has been in decent form for Essex. He also has the attribute of being able to bowl capable medium pace (à la Collingwood, if a little heavier), which seems vital in a four-man attack.

Eoin Morgan, who was the reserve batsman in Australia, does not bowl and in any case has not helped his cause by his decision to play in the Indian Premier League. His sparkling innings of 193 for the England Lions against the Sri Lankans on Thursday and Friday was, however, a timely reminder of his talent.

The IPL remains a spectre at the feast. Morgan swore by its significance to the development of his game in a chat at Derby on Thursday evening and pledged his troth further by dropping casually into the conversation that he intended to return to play for his side, the Kolkata Knight Riders, in the later stages of the competition if he is indeed overlooked for the First Test.

This raised an eyebrow or two among the England hierarchy. Bopara, who scored only 17 for the Lions, turned down the chance of going to the IPL despite an offer of $150,000 (£92,000). This certainly buttressed his claims that Test cricket came before everything else, though not going to the IPL also allowed him to be at home when his wife gave birth to the couple's first child a month ago.

As England will persist in playing six batsmen, one or two of them will have to contribute a few overs on most days when they are in the field. Or that is the theory in the absence of a genuine all-rounder. So dominant were England in Australia, as it happens, Collingwood bowled only 30 overs in the entire series, 12 of them when they were detained in the field at Brisbane.

Bopara has had two Test careers already. The first was marked by three successive ducks, the second by three successive hundreds. But he did not sustain the form and was eventually dropped for the final match of the 2009 Ashes. There remains the suspicion that for all his gifts, Bopara's temperament may be brittle.

The other batting place which is under most scrutiny is that of Kevin Pietersen. The fact is that Pietersen is not the batsman he used to be and, apart from his sublime 227 in the Second Test against Australia last winter, there was precious little else from the days of yore.

Since he lost the captaincy, Pietersen has regularly been prone to injury. He is not exactly on borrowed time but while England still consider that he is capable of returning to his full glory, he is not the cock of the walk.

At present it is by no means certain that Pietersen will still be No 4 in England's Test side at the end of this summer. A hundred in Cardiff or, more resonantly, at Lord's the following week would enable everybody to get on with business as usual.

Rarely can England's bowling have offered more cause for optimism. Stuart Broad is returning after recovering from the injuries which cut short his winter and will presumably not be kept waiting. But there are probably nine pacemen now in the frame for international places. This is a tribute to the academy system.

Sri Lanka look undercooked but the clash between their top five batsmen and England's bowlers will be the most fascinating aspect of early summer. It is wonderful to have Test cricket back, better still if they are packed into Sophia Gardens to watch.

What to watch this summer

England's chance to become No 1

Since the ICC formulated their rankings system, England have never been higher than two, the place they occupy at present. This summer presents a golden chance for them to be officially the best side in the world – but they need to win both series.

England's brilliant fast-bowling unit

Perhaps the most enduring image of the winter will be the way the pace attack's five members went about their work. Their skill and persistence wore down Australia, as it should Sri Lanka. They are a thrilling sight.

Ian Bell is finally coming to maturity

Throughout the Ashes, it was clear Ian Bell is approaching his zenith. Tired by the end of the winter, he still looks capable of greatness and this could be the summer to confirm it.

The first World Test Championship

The inaugural tournament will be held in England in 2013 (as will the next Ashes series, which seems to be killing the golden goose). A place in the top four is the only way to qualify. The draw will not be finalised until spring 2013 so sustaining form is important. Sri Lanka are now fourth.

Stephen Brenkley