Just How Big A Factor Is Strength In Depth?
It takes several elements to fall into place for a team to get to the top of their sport, and perhaps even more to stay there, as well as a little luck along the way. England, India and now South Africa have all recently had spells at the top of the Test rankings but been unable to retain their spot for long.
Looking at another sport and any team can learn plenty from Spain's footballers - the first team to win three global tournaments on the trot. While their technical ability sometimes leaves even seasoned onlookers dumbfounded, one key factor links them with the dominant Australian teams of the late 21st century and early part of this decade: strength in depth.
Stuart Law scored more than 27,000 first-class runs yet he played just one Test. Jamie Siddons played a single One-Day International. So deep was Australia's talent pool that Michael Hussey and Brad Hodge had to wait until their careers were well advanced to get a game, all the while scoring runs for fun in Australian and English domestic cricket.
England have enjoyed two golden periods in the last ten years. First, the run which saw them win seven straight Tests and then claim the 2005 Ashes series under Duncan Fletcher and the period between 2009 and 2011 when they hit the number one spot.
What many forget about the Fletcher era is that after the Ashes celebrations were over, they travelled to Pakistan, where shorn of the class of Michael Vaughan and lacking a genuine penetrative spin threat (this was before the days of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar) they were beaten.
By the end of that winter, Trescothick had also been forced to depart and although that facilitated the discovery of Alastair Cook, it wasn't enough. The likes of Liam Plunkett, Shaun Udal and Ian Blackwell were not good enough to keep England winning and it is worth remembering that in that time they were trying to replace Graham Thorpe and Mark Butcher as well.
Fast forward to 2011 and England thumped India 4-0 to reach the lofty heights for the first time. Then, almost as rapidly as India had collapsed, it all went wrong for Andy Flower's men - once again playing against Pakistan. You only needed to then see how Kevin Pietersen's absence against South Africa left a gaping hole in the middle order to know that England's reserves were not as strong as they would like.
India had a different problem. Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay have already proved that their strength in depth is pretty good. When players like Manoj Tiwary and Ajinkya Rahane can't get in the team despite Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman retiring this can only be a good thing, provided that the players ahead of them are performing.
India fell down due to their form away from home, culminating in that shocking reverse on English soil, and a lack of bowling options. Even now, India keep having to return to Harbhajan Singh, such is their lack of confidence in any of the young spinners coming through.
So to the incumbents - South Africa. Consider that over the last 12 months Marchant de Lange, Mark Boucher, Albie Morkel, JP Duminy, Vernon Philander and now Jacques Kallis have suffered injuries and been unavailable. Imagine England without Stuart Broad, Matt Prior, Tim Bresnan, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen, or perhaps India without Umesh Yadav, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Ravichandran Ashwin, Kohli and Pujara - would either of them be challenging Australia with such an injury list?
Highly doubtful but the fact that South Africa are able to fight back from an opening day in Adelaide where they conceded 482 runs, and draw in Brisbane with 10 men (Duminy being injured before batting on the first day) despite so many obstacles being placed in their path shows just one of the reasons - albeit a key one - why they hold the number one ranking.
Look at the players they have introduced to their side. They have not been raw youngsters but seasoned players who in some cases are returning to the side having scored thousands of first-class runs or taken hundreds of wickets. Alviro Petersen, Jacques Rudolph and Philander - much like Hussey and Hodge before them - had to go away, and really earn the right to get back in the team.
Having beaten off stiff competition to get there, no wonder they leave no stone unturned in bidding to stay in the team. Such competition for places simply improves the team's performance, keeps players on their toes and ensures minimal disruption when changes are made.
© Cricket World 2012