Thursday, November 19, 2009

England v South Africa – a tale of Number One’s

As England prepares to take on South Africa in their ODI series, there is little doubt that the home team start as favourites, despite their disappointing showing in the recent ICC Champions Trophy 2009. Little more than a month ago, England upset the Proteas by 22 runs at Centurion in that competition to extend their unbeaten run against them to six matches, their best-ever.

However, despite those recent reversals, South Africa still holds a healthy 22-16 lead in the ODI matches between the two teams, with one match tied and two no-results. It is also very much the case that South Africans have dominated the Reliance Mobile ICC Player Rankings far more in recent years than their English counterparts.

It could be argued that England’s best days in terms of ODI Rankings performances are long behind them. When the shorter format of the international game first started in the early 1970s England players dominated with both bat and ball. Keith Fletcher and Dennis Amiss had a near-monopoly on the number one position for batsmen in the four year period from 1973 to 1977, and it was John Snow, Geoff Arnold and Chris Old who were the pre-eminent bowlers over an even longer period – stretching all the way to late 1979. However, that was as good as it got for English bowlers, and none have been able to look down on the rest of the world since Andy Roberts usurped Old in December 1979. With so little to choose between the current top ten bowlers, could Stuart Broad be the first English bowler to reach top spot for more than three decades?

For South Africa, the pickings bowling-wise are even slimmer. Admittedly, the rest of the world had already played 685 matches by the time they returned from the international wilderness in Kolkata in 1991, but only one bowler from that country has reached top spot. However – once he reached it, he spent more matches than anyone else in that position. Shaun Pollock first reached number one in December 1997 and was in that position when he retired in February 2008 after spending 844 matches – and 1,964 days on top of the world. Hopes are high that Dale Steyn – currently in sixth place and still qualifying for a full Rating – will be able to emulate his former team-mate.

Since that initial dominance from Amiss and Fletcher (and the solitary match John Edrich had as number one after the very first ODI of all) three other England batsmen have spent fleeting amounts of time on top. First was Allan Lamb, who had a brief moment in the sun after slamming 91 against India at Kanpur in October 1989. Next was Marcus Trescothick who enjoyed a fortnight at the top after scoring heavily in the home series with South Africa in the summer of 2003. And most recently it was Kevin Pietersen who achieved the feat during the 2007 World Cup and stayed there for five months.

Four South African batsmen have enjoyed the number one spot. The first was Hansie Cronje – a four-match stay in late 1994 in an era dominated by Brian Lara. Surprisingly, the honour of the highest number of batting points by any South African – and the only man to reach 900 - goes to Gary Kirsten. He achieved this after an unbeaten innings of 105 against Australia at Indore in 1996 – at the end of a period in which he hit six centuries in 21 matches. Since then both Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith have enjoyed 60-odd matches in top spot and with a good series against England, AB de Villiers could become the fifth Protea to reach the batting pinnacle.

It is in the all-rounder stakes – however – that the South Africans really come into their own. Between them, the foursome of Kallis, Pollock, Cronje and Lance Klusener have racked up 1,211 matches in top spot – all of them among the top six in the history of the game in terms of matches spent at number one. England also boasts four all-rounders who have been number one (plus John Snow who was top for two days after the second ODI ever played). However, the sum total of matches that Messrs Old, Botham, Greig and Flintoff spent there comes to just 316 in reply.