NEW DELHI Jan 22 (Reuters) - With Pakistan shedding their notorious unpredictability and Australia coming to terms with a tricky transition, test cricket hierarchy in the next couple of months might look more like a banana republic... ripe for a coup.
The International Cricket Council (ICC) dangles an annual $175,000 carrot for whichever team tops test rankings on the April 1 cut-off date and table-toppers England were justified in believing they could be cashing the cheque in a few months.
They still lead the race by a healthy margin but being thumped by an ambitious Pakistan team inside three days of their first test this year, skipper Andrew Strauss and his team mates can no longer take it for granted.
If England may be lined up for an April Fool's Day surprise, the situation is even worse for the team they inherited the number one ranking from.
India, beaten 4-0 by England last year, are staring at their second successive overseas whitewash against an Australian team determined to claw their way back to the top.
The inconsistencies at the top is good news for South Africa, who now sniff a slim chance to gatecrash England's party.
At present, England top the official rankings with 125 points, followed by India (118), South Africa (117), Australia (103), Pakistan (99) and Sri Lanka (98).
England's rise to the top was a reward for a blemish-free 2011 when Strauss's men did not lose a single test.
But the side were given a rude awakening in Dubai earlier this week where Pakistan, one of the most improved teams last year with just one loss and six wins, spanked them in three days to go 1-0 up in the three-match series.
"This England team have not won in the subcontinent. They even played badly in the World Cup last year, which was held in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka," former England opener Geoffrey Boycott wrote in a column in the Telegraph newspaper.
"Until they start playing well in the subcontinent they can't call themselves the best team in the world and definitely can't be judged against some of the other great England sides," Boycott added.
Former Pakistan skipper Javed Miandad was also quick to pour scorn over the ICC system.
"I don't believe much in rankings because it doesn't give a clear picture of the team's overall performance in the world," Miandad was quoted as saying by Cricinfo (www.espncricinfo.com).
"England are now the number one team because they had the home advantage and never lost in their backyard."
There was similar disputing of India's rise to the top despite their woeful record outside the subcontinent.
However, England can still guarantee themselves the hefty ICC cheque by winning at least one of the remaining two tests against Pakistan or drawing both.
But if Pakistan beat England by a 2-0 margin or more, South Africa could pocket the cheque, provided they can blank New Zealand in the away test series in March.
England now have two tests to redeem themselves or it would be more instability at the top, which maybe good for the game but certainly not for Strauss and his men.
(Editing by John O'Brien; To comment on this story: email firstname.lastname@example.org)
Please double-click on the newslink:
for more cricket