Smiles better: South Africa skipper Graeme Smith celebrates his side finishing the 2012/13 season as the world's No. 1-ranked Test team
With yet another action-packed 12 months of international cricket ahead of us, we gaze into our crystal ball and predict just how the International Cricket Council (ICC) Test-match rankings may look one year from now.
Despite the cricket world’s attention currently being firmly fixed on the Ashes in England, with much focus also likely to be on the eagerly anticipated return series Down Under later this year, there are still plenty of other mouth-watering contests in store between now and next summer, with each clash likely to have a significant impact on the final rankings.
Present pace-setters South Africa travel to the UAE for a two-Test series with Pakistan in October, before then hosting both India in December, followed by Australia three months later, in two of the most eye-catching match-ups of the next 12 months.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the table, struggling West Indies face three tough-looking Tests in New Zealand in December, Pakistan visit Zimbabwe for two Tests next month, before then hosting sub-continental rivals Sri Lanka, again in their adopted home of the UAE, across three Tests in December.
Then, of course, there is England, currently sitting in third place in the standings, although Alastair Cook’s men will move back above India into second position if they can avoid defeat against Australia in the fifth Test at the Oval starting on Wednesday.
Cook and co. travel Down Under for a return five-match series against Australia in November, while next summer England host the Asian duo of Sri Lanka in May for two Tests, followed by MS Dhoni’s India in July for what should be five cracking Test matches.
And with the ICC rankings placing greater emphasis on a country’s most-recent form, with their past results counting for less, the outcome of these upcoming Test series will be absolutely vital in deciding where each nation sits in the table this time next year.
Test best: South Africa will once again be top of the rankings in 2014
Pakistan (a): 1-2
India (h): 2-0
Australia (h): 3-0
The Proteas go into the 2013/14 season having incredibly not lost a Test match for the past 19 months, when India got the better of Graeme Smith’s men in South Africa, and while they do suffer a shock defeat in their very first Test of the new campaign in Abu Dhabi, the tourists will continue their even more remarkable unbeaten run in Test-match series with a come-from-behind triumph against Pakistan in the UAE.
And Smith and co. further strengthen their grip at the top of the world rankings by brushing aside the challenges of both India and Australia at home in their two summer series, without losing a single Test against either nation.
Plenty to cheer about: expect more scenes like those in Durham last Monday for England in the next 12 months
Australia (a): 2-2
Sri Lanka (h): 1-0
India (h): 2-1
Like South Africa, Cook’s side will go unbeaten in the three Test series they take part in during the next year, beginning with a tough assignment Down Under starting in November, when a hard-fought and nerve-jangling five-match contest ends all square come the SCG in January, meaning the tourists hang on to the urn by the skin of their teeth for the fourth time in a row.
However, back in their more favoured home conditions next summer, England return to winning ways when faced with the duel sub-continental challenge of Sri Lanka and India to keep hold of second place in the table.
Captain Fantastic: but Dhoni and India are set for a challenging year coming up
South Africa (a): 2-0
England (a): 2-1
Not a great year coming up for MS Dhoni and co., although tours to in-form duo South Africa and England are not what you are looking for when trying to rise up the rankings, especially for renowned poor travellers such as India. Two expected series’ losses keep them in third spot in the standings.
It's good to talk: but things are not about to get better any time soon for Australia skipper Clarke and coach Lehman.
England (h): 2-2
South Africa (a): 3-0
Yet more rebuilding for coach Darren Lehman and skipper Michael Clarke after the chastening experience of losing the Ashes 4-0 in England this summer. There appears to be cause for optimism after the return series at home ends in gallant failure following a thrilling 2-2 draw that still meant the tourists kept hold of the urn.
However, those hopes for a brighter future are then blown away by the Proteas paceman in South Africa, with Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander destroying the Australia top order on their way to a comprehensive 3-0 whitewash that leaves the Aussies hanging on to fourth place in the rankings.
All smiles: however, will Pakistan captain Misbah ul haq have much to smile about in 2013/14?
Zimbabwe (a): 0-2
South Africa (h): 1-2
Sri Lanka (h): 1-1
A bit of everything, as is usual, with Pakistan over the next year. A routine (if there ever is such a thing with Misbah ul haq’s side) win against minnows Zimbabwe on the road to kicks off their season, before they nearly upset the world’s best Test team in the UAE, only to choke with the winning line in sight. They then end their year at home by sharing the spoils with Asian rivals Sri Lanka.
All of which leaves the mercurial and totally unpredictable Pakistan still in mid-table, but having closed the gap on fourth-placed Australia.
Leading from the front: West Indies captain Darren Sammy
New Zealand (a): 2-1
Just the one series for Darren Sammy’s ever-improving young outfit. Despite continuing the recent improvements made under coach Otis Gibson, the conditions and the Kiwi pace attack prove just too tough a challenge, as the tourists go down to a 2-1 series loss that keeps them in sixth spot in the table.
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Pakistan (a): 1-1
England (a): 1-0
Not a great 12 months ahead for the Lankans, who do not have a home series in that time, hence their lack of series wins for a side that tends to struggle on the road. They do manage to record a creditable 1-1 draw in the UAE against Pakistan before Christmas.
However, not surprisingly, England in May proves too tough to handle. The inevitable 1-0 series loss there prevents Angelo Matthews’ men from overtaking rivals Pakistan in the standings, as they remain way down in a disappointing seventh place.
Captain's log: Black Caps skipper McCullum has brought about a remarkable turnaround in New Zealand's Test-match fortunes
West Indies (h): 2-1
Just the one three-Test series coming up for Brendon McCullum’s team and their impressive 2-1 victory over West Indies confirms their current status as the most improved side in the Test-match arena of late. Sadly, it is still not enough to move them above Sri Lanka into seventh spot in the rankings.