England started 2016 in fine style by knocking South Africa off their perch as the world’s top-ranked Test team.
After winning back the Ashes last summer expectations are starting to rise around a blossoming England team and even Proteas skipper AB de Villiers has suggested Alastair Cook’s men could be “the team to beat” in Tests over the next couple of years.
It is worth noting that England hold seven of the nine Test trophies they compete for in each series, and they could reclaim the missing two if they beat Sri Lanka and Pakistan this summer.
Cook is wary of getting too far ahead of himself – pointing for the need for consistency after the 280-run defeat in Centurion this week – and there is ground to be made up on the ICC Rankings where England are placed fifth.
Climbing up that list will be the number-one priority in 2016 and ecb.co.uk have assessed the challenges in store over the coming year in Test cricket.
ICC Ranking: Seventh
Sri Lanka’s form: Lost 2-0 v New Zealand (away), Won 2-0 v West Indies (home), Lost 2-1 v India (home).
2015 Leading runscorer: Dinesh Chandimal (901 runs @ 47.42)
2015 Leading wicket-taker: Dhammika Prasad (41 wickets @ 24.95)
A three-Test series starts at Headingley – where Alastair Cook might just enjoy another record-breaking day – before taking in Emirates Durham ICG and Lord’s.
Cook passed his mentor Graham Gooch to become England’s leading Test runscorer of all time at Headingley last summer and is 36 runs away from becoming just the 12th Test player to 10,000 runs.
Perhaps more central in his plans will be getting the summer off to a winning start after Sri Lanka won their first Test series on these shores in 2014, a triumph sealed at Headingley when James Anderson was dismissed with just one ball left to be bowled in the Test.
If England’s all-time leading Test wicket-taker has revenge on his mind the prospect of an early-season green-tinged pitch will lighten the mood alongside new-ball partner-in-crime Stuart Broad.
ICC Ranking: Fourth
Pakistan’s form: Won 2-0 v England (home), Won 2-1 v Sri Lanka (away), Won 1-0 v Bangladesh (away).
2015 Leading runscorer: Younus Khan (789 runs @ 60.69)
2015 Leading wicket-taker: Yasir Shah (49 wickets @ 23.00)
The best way to climb the Test rankings is to beat the sides ahead of you, and with Pakistan currently in fourth – one place above England – the hosts will be eager to get the better of a four-Test series.
Lord’s, Emirates Old Trafford, Edgbaston and the Kia Oval will all host Tests against Misbah-ul-Haq’s men, and Cook’s side will be keen to atone for a 2-0 defeat in the United Arab Emirates last year.
Cook aside, England’s batsmen found the going tough in the Middle East, but the likes of Joe Root, James Taylor and Ben Stokes will be keen to cash in with plenty of runs in more favourable conditions.
October – Bangladesh (two-Test series)
ICC Ranking: Ninth
Bangladesh’s form: Drawn 0-0 v South Africa (home), Drawn 0-0 v India (home), Lost 1-0 v Pakistan (home).
2015 Leading runscorer: Imrul Kayes (384 @ 54.85).
2015 Leading wicket-taker: Taijul Islam (11 wickets @ 49.45)
England have never lost a Test against Bangladesh and will be expected to continue that trend, albeit against an ever-improving Bangladesh outfit.
India and South Africa both failed to win in Bangladesh last year – due to a combination of poor weather and placid pitches – and England will surely expect hard graft awaits them in the two-Test series.
Certainly there will be no case of underestimating the Tigers – last year’s World Cup proved their ability to cause an upset – and cases will need to be made ahead of the testing trip to India that will follow.
All eyes are likely to be on England’s spin combinations and Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid will hope to get another chance to prove themselves after gaining valuable experience during the tour of United Arab Emirates a couple of months ago.
Off-spinner Graeme Swann showed his class in England’s comprehensive 2-0 win over the Tigers in their own backyard in 2010, taking 16 wickets in four innings, while Cook struck two centuries as he led from the front when deputising as skipper.
November/December – India (five-Test series)
ICC Ranking: First
India’s form: Won 3-0 v South Africa (home), Won 2-1 v Sri Lanka (away), Drawn 0-0 v Bangladesh (away).
2015 Leading runscorer: Virat Kohli (640 runs @ 42.66)
2015 Leading wicket-taker: Ravichandran Ashwin (62 wickets @ 17.20)
England will face their toughest challenge of the year last.
While the tourists were successful in India at the end of 2012, for the first time in 28 years, Virat Kohli’s side have replaced South Africa as the world’s number one side following England’s 2-1 series win over the Proteas.
South Africa were left in a spin on their recent visit to India – when they were comprehensively beaten 3-0 – and England’s batsmen can expect to be fully tested by the likes of slow bowlers Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja on turning dust-bowls.
Cook has passed that type of trial-by-spin test many times before – he made a century on debut against India in Nagpur – but a number of his fellow batsmen will likely make their first Test tour of India.
Of the batsmen Nick Compton, Ian Bell, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Samit Patel were on that India tour four years ago and that experience could prove invaluable.