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Best of the Best

Best of the Best

While watching the Australian machine destroy everything in its path for the last 10-odd years, I’ve often wondered – have we been experiencing the best Test team ever?

A couple of years ago, I spent some time retrospectively applying the ICC Test Rankings, introduced in 2003, to all Tests back from Day One. Why, I hear you ask – don’t you have a life, Dave? Well, I was actually using this to quantify the strength of opposition for player rankings, but in any case I thought the results were interesting in themselves.

One application of this data is that we can determine objectively the best-ever Test team. The table below shows the highest points totals achieved by all of the best teams through the years (at least 120):-

Points Margin Team Peak Year # of teams
143 +34 Australia 2007-08 10
134 +21 Australia 1959-60 7
133 +25 Australia 1951-52 6
132 +29 West Indies 1985-86 7
131 +22 West Indies 1964-65 7
130 +41 Australia 1924-25 3
127 +70 England 1890 3
125 +29 Australia 1935-36 6
125 +8 South Africa 1969-70 7
125 -5 Australia 1962-63* 7
124 +25 Australia 1975-76 6
122 +19 England 1956 7
122 +19 England 1971 6
122 +8 West Indies 1993-94 9
121 +34 England 1928-29 4
121 -5 South Africa 2008-09* 9
121 -7 West Indies 1948* 6
120 +17 West Indies 1977-78 6

(The table shows peak points rating, margin above second-placed team, the team, year peak points was achieved and the number of Test-playing nations at that time.)

* High scores by second-ranked teams. Australia were the highest-rated second-place team ever, behind the 1962-63 West Indians (130, peaking in 1964-65 with 131); other high-ranking runners-up include the current South Africa team (second to Australia’s 126) and the West Indies, second to the 1948 Australians (128, who peaked with 133 in 1951-52).

Best of the Best?

So, assuming that we accept the ICC World Ranking system as the best relative measure of dominance we currently have available for teams (notwithstanding the recent criticism leveled at the player ranking, which uses a completely different set of metrics), we can say that the best ever Test team was the Australian side of the 2000s, and by a significant margin. Their peak points total of 143, achieved in 2007-08 following their demolition of England and victory over Sri Lanka, is much higher than any other team and their margin over second place is the highest of any era where more than three teams are ranked (i.e. excluding the period when England, Australia and South Africa were the only Test-playing nations).

As far as strength of opposition is concerned, the average of all teams has been lowered recently by Zimbabwe’s decline and especially Bangladesh (stuck on zero), however points gained when playing such weak teams are very minimal with this system, so victories over those teams do not really benefit strong teams. If we therefore accept that we can exclude Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, the average of all teams’ points totals is actually higher now than ever before, so we can say that the strength of opposition faced by the 2000s Australia is higher than the top-ranked teams of earlier eras.

Hemespheric Dominance

The highest margins were achieved during the period when only England, Australia and South Africa were playing Tests, so with the relatively few games played large points swings were more common. So discounting those earlier periods, the highest levels of dominance have also been enjoyed by the 2000s Australians, followed by the Windies of the mid-80s then the mid-30s Aussies (with Bradman, Ponsford, O’Reilly and Grimmett).

Looking more closely at the top teams, it’s interesting that the 1902 Australian touring side don’t figure on this list, although they were very dominant (117 points, +34 ahead of second-placed England). Another surprising aspect of the list is that the second-best ever team as ranked by this method is the 1959-60 Australians, featuring Harvey, Benaud, Davidson, Grout and Lindwall, who hammered the previously top-ranked England team 4-0.

Staying Power

Difficult as this is for an Englishman to write, the Australians have clearly been the most consistently dominant side throughout test history. Australian Test sides have been top-ranked for approximately 80 years out of the 132 years covered. Following them is England, ranked top for about 29 years, however not since 1980-81, when they lost the series and top spot to the West Indies. The West Indies are next, with around 20 years at the top, including most of the period from 1980 to 1995, except for a couple of brief periods when Australia went top.

The only other sides who have ranked number one are South Africa -the famous 1969-70 team who beat Australia 4-0 to wrestle number one ranking away from England, and the late 90s team who passed the top spot back and forth with Australia, before Australia took it back for good in 2001 – and India, in 1973-74, after back-to-back series wins against West Indies and England.

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone

So, we shouldn’t feel too bad that the Australians may now be on the wane after a decade or more of dominance – we may all been privileged to watch the best team ever!

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