State of the Nation: Strauss’s men are facing tough examination of No 1 credentials

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ENGLAND go into 2012 as undisputed kings of the global game.

Their 4-0 victory over India last summer saw Andrew Strauss’s men usurp Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s side at the top of the world Test rankings.

Now England have the chance to cement their status during what promises to be a pivotal year.

They play Tests against Pakistan, Sri Lanka, West Indies and South Africa in a tough examination of their No 1 credentials.

The year begins with a three-Test series against Pakistan in the neutral venue of the Middle East.

With Pakistan prevented from playing international cricket in their own country due to terrorist attacks, two of the matches will be played in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi.

As with all away series it will not be easy, but any self-respecting No 1 team would expect to win.

Pakistan are no longer the force of yore and have lost shamed spot-fixers Salman Butt, Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif, and England should be able to take the spoils.

A tougher examination will come in Sri Lanka – a rubber that will tell us much about the state of the England side.

There are only two Tests on that occasion and the visitors’ target must at least be to draw the series.

But with Muttiah Muraliatharan having left Test cricket, it is another series England are capable of winning.

The strength and variety of their attack – so critical to their rise to the rankings summit – can carry them forward to another victory.

That attack should certainly be enough to see off the West Indies, who play three Tests in England at the start of the summer.

The West Indies are languishing in seventh place in the rankings and are not likely to gain many points on their visit to England.

It would be a surprise if England – weather permitting – do not win the series by at least two Tests.

Then, following a glut of one-day games against West Indies and Australia, where England will be aiming for substantial improvements in the 50-over format, comes the main entertainment of the year.

The visit of South Africa for three Tests (why not four or five?) pits first against second in the ICC table and is effectively a shoot-out for No 1 bragging rights.

That is when England’s batsmen must hit top form for in Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and the rapidly emerging Vernon Philander, South Africa have a top-class pace attack.

Not for nothing is Steyn the world’s No 1-ranked bowler, and how England cope with him could determine the series.

South Africa also have a talented spinner in Imran Tahir, who has plenty of experience of English conditions.

Another good year, however, would really strengthen England’s status and there is no reason why they cannot stay top of the pile for a good while yet.