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A close race to the summit

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Number_one_Best_Greatest_cricket2016 promises to be a nerve-wracking year with plenty of teams vying to reach pole position in the ICC Test rankings. South Africa were dethroned from the top spot after an unimpressive performance at home against Alastair Cook's touring party in the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy.

As a consequence, India have returned to the top of the table after more than 4 years. However, the rankings will tend to fluctuate in the coming year as the margin between the major contenders is perilously close.

Let us take a close look at the top 5 teams which could potentially finish the year as the premier Test team in the world.

(The tentative year-long schedule from the ICC FTP chart is subject to changes)

India

The Indians gained massive rating points by decimating the visiting Proteas 3-0 on raging turners at home. However, the preceding 2-1 victory in Sri Lanka proved to be the catalyst for a remarkable turnaround in the team's fortunes.

Despite finishing 2014 with only a solitary test win against England at Lords, the Indian team's resolve strengthened significantly after a slew of grueling contests outside the subcontinent.

They are well-placed to finish 2016 on top, with most of their encounters coming on spin-friendly surfaces at home. There is a danger for them though: playing against lower-ranked teams means that even a minor slip-up can cause a huge dent in the ratings.

Strengths

The spin-trio of R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Amit Mishra will relish the opportunity to feast on uncomfortable batting units on pitches which will assist them in every possible way.

Weaknesses

The down-side of preparing rank turners is that the current generation of Indian batsmen are also vulnerable against quality spinners.

Opportunities

Key: Opposition (Venue- Number of Matches)

•    Zimbabwe (Away- 1)
•    West Indies (Away- 4)
•    Bangladesh (Home-1)
•    New Zealand (Home- 3 Tests)
•    England (Home- 5 Tests)

Threats

Last time England played in India, they were generally expected to surrender meekly. But Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar out-spun the hosts to secure a landmark 2-1 series win. The combine of Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali could pose a trouble or two in the Indian camp.

Australia

Steve Smith has inherited a typically bullish outfit from the recently retired Michael Clarke, and his additions have been equally if not more aggressive. While remaining an impregnable force in home conditions, they are struggling in pitches which aid spin or swing.

2015 saw victories against India, New Zealand and West Indies on featherbed pitches. In spite of performing creditably, the Aussies had to relinquish the Ashes 2-3 in overcast and gloomy England.

Should they manage to defeat New Zealand, Australia will return to the top. If they were to maintain their position, Smith's side would have to emerge unscathed from their tour of Sri Lanka and continue their dominance at home.

Strengths

An aggressive opener who can bat without succumbing to scoreboard pressure makes a vast difference to a team's status. The merciless David Warner will hold the key alongside Smith the run-machine.

Weaknesses

The middle-order does not look assured enough to off-set the loss of early wickets. Smarter captains could detect and capitalize on the inexperience in the batting department.

Opportunities

•    New Zealand (Away- 2)
•    Sri Lanka (Away- 3)
•    South Africa (Home- 4)
•    Pakistan (Home- 3)

Threats

The New Zealand sojourn will go a long way in determining the ability of the Australian batsmen to handle the moving ball. Tim Southee and Trent Boult are a dangerous proposition in windy, swingy country.

England

Having started the year on an incredible high, England will hope that they are ready to vault themselves into the upper echelons of Test cricket.

Cook's team shrugged off disappointing tours to West Indies and the UAE by bouncing back strongly in South Africa.

A bumper home summer against fallible outfits like Sri Lanka and Pakistan awaits them before embarking on a demanding trip to India.

Strengths

Perhaps no other team boasts of such depth in their batting order. The presence of all-rounders like Ben Stokes and Moeen Ali gives Cook the flexibility to use his seamers in short spells.

Weaknesses

India will prove to be a litmus test for the batsmen who looked unconvincing against the turning ball in the desert. Before that, Dhammika Prasad and Wahab Riaz could ask painful questions about the fragile top-order.

Opportunities

•    Sri Lanka (Home- 3)
•    Pakistan (Home- 4)
•    Bangladesh (Away- 2)
•    India (Away- 5)

Threats

In the 2012 series, Ashwin was the rookie tweaker struggling to land his variations in the right spot. The Tamil Nadu off-spinner has come a long way since then and will be eager to inflict serious damage on their long middle-order in what promises to be an enthralling encounter.

New Zealand

Brendon McCullum has reshaped the Kiwi team into his own image: bold, entertaining and effective. His retirement after the Australia series will be a huge loss.

However, they have a ready replacement in Kane Williamson, who is arguably the most promising young batsman in the world at the moment.

After scraping a 1-1 draw in England, the Blackcaps could not do much across the Tasman. Challenging tours to India and South Africa loom before returning to the comforts of home conditions.

Strengths

A battery of world-class pace bowlers who can expose almost any top-order with a combination of pace and accuracy remains their strength.

Weaknesses

The absence of a potent spinner will hurt the Kiwis' chances on ground not conducive to swing bowling.

Opportunities

•    Zimbabwe (Away- 2)
•    South Africa (Away- 2)
•    India (Away- 3)
•    Pakistan (Home- 2)
•    Bangladesh (Home- 2)

Threats

While the batting lineup looks adequate, tricky surfaces and unrelenting spinners could reopen old wounds.

South Africa

Even though they are no longer the number 1 Test team, South Africa still possesses resilient cricketers who could bring them back into the reckoning.

2015 was a calamitous year for South African cricket. Marred by controversial race issues, the Proteas' 9-year unbeaten away record was brought to a grinding halt in India.

After another underwhelming performance at home, newly appointed captain AB de Villiers has an unenviable task on his hands as the South Africans face up against Australia in Australia.

Strengths

Kagiso Rabada is the latest pace bowling sensation to come out of the 'rainbow nation'. Clocking impressive speeds, the youngster looks fit and capable of bowling long spells which is a rare trait among modern quicks.

Weaknesses

Low on morale, the dressing atmosphere is the biggest obstacle currently facing South Africa. Often under the firing line, the coaching staff needs to step in and resuscitate the squad.

Opportunities

•    New Zealand (Home- 2)
•    Australia (Away- 4)
•    Sri Lanka (Home- 3)

Threats

Plagued by recurring injuries to key personnel, the last thing de Villiers would want is to bowl his pacers into the ground on flat pitches in Australia against a power-packed batting unit.



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Ram Kumar is passionate about all sports, especially cricket. His favorite cricketers include Rahul...

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