No team can be on top forever. If it is particularly formidable it can be No 1 for an extended period at most. But sooner or later it has to come to terms with the fact that their superstars are aged, are past their best or have called it a day and the replacements are just not good enough for the team to remain numero uno. And, even as this process continues another team is able to have the right composition to make their way to the top.
A look at the game's history will unearth many such cases. Perhaps the earliest example is the Australian team of the 20s. With the awesome figure of Warwick Armstrong in command and with players of the calibre of Jack Gregory, Ted McDonald, Charlie McCartney, Warren Bardsley, Jack Ryder, Bill Ponsford, Bill Oldfield and Arthur Mailey in the ranks they simply outplayed both England and South Africa. Along the route they won eight matches in a row against England, including the first 5-0 clean sweep in Tests. It was not that England and South Africa were weak; it was just that the Australians were simply unstoppable.
England regained the Ashes in 1926 and were the top team for a short period but their dominance was short lived thanks to the emergence of a certain Don Bradman. Basking under the glory of his batsmanship Australia were the team to beat through the 30s and 40s, except on one infamously controversial occasion when England resorted to Bodyline to curb Bradman's scoring prowess. While Australia were a great team in the 30s, thanks also to the presence of Sid Barnes, Bill Brown, Stan McCabe, Bill O'Reilly, Clarrie Grimmett and Lindsay Hassett, it was only in the 40s that they earned the title 'The Invincibles' because of the emergence of players like Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller, Arthur Morris and Neil Harvey.
It was clear that once Bradman retired Australia's downslide would commence and this is exactly what happened. In the meantime, England regrouped and emerged as the leading team of the 50s, thanks to outstanding batsmen (Len Hutton, Denis Compton, Peter May, Colin Cowdrey, Tom Graveney, Ken Barrington, Ted Dexter), bowlers (Fred Trueman, Brian Statham, Frank Tyson, Alec Bedser, Jim Laker, Tony Lock, Trevor Bailey, John Wardle) and an all time great wicketkeeper in Godfrey Evans and the results emphasized their superb record of not losing a series at home from 1951 to 1960 and not losing a series anywhere from 1951 to 1959.
Even though Australia regained the Ashes in 1959, their position at the top was short lived for West Indies emerged as the team of the 60s. Under the captaincy of first Frank Worrell and then Gary Sobers they assembled an array of strokeplaying batsmen (Conrad Hunte, Basil Butcher, Rohan Kanhai, Seymour Nurse, Clive Lloyd) and with Sobers as the outstanding cricketer of the day and with Wesley Hall, Charlie Griffith and Lance Gibbs around they had a balanced attack too. Their reign at the top ended towards the end of the decade because their stars had aged and the replacements were not good enough.
The 70s was a decade in which no team ruled at the top for any length of time. First it was England even as India for the first time were serious contenders with series triumphs in West Indies and England and then it was Australia who emerged as the best team with the Chappell brothers Ian and Greg in charge of a formidable team that included Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson and a number of top quality batsmen (Keith Stackpole, Doug Walters, Ian Redpath, Rod Marsh).
The Kerry Packer schism towards the end of the decade turned the tide all too briefly in England's favour but once the leading players were back in the international fold it was clear that West Indies would emerge as the leading team. What none could have bargained for was that their dominance would be so complete and stretch over 15 years.
With a formidable line-up of stroke playing batsmen (Roy Fredericks, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Richie Richardson, Alvin Kallicharran, Lawrence Rowe, Larry Gomes, Jeff Dujon, Carl Hooper), a never ending assembly of fast bowlers (Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Colin Croft, Malcolm Marshall, Ian Bishop, Courtney Walsh, Curtley Ambrose) and under the captaincy of first Clive Lloyd and then Viv Richards the West Indies were simply unstoppable. They won matches in three days, won them by an innings and plenty and notched up two successive 5-0 'Blackwashes' against England. The awesome run included a record eleven wins on the trot and 27 consecutive matches without defeat.
Even though West Indies ruled world cricket for an extended period, it was clear that their reign at the top would be over once the high quality of their batting and bowling ran out and it was left to Australia under Mark Taylor to breach the 'Caribbean Wall' in 1995 when the West Indies lost a series for the first time since 1980. For the next decade first under Taylor and then under Steve Waugh it was Australia's turn to remain top dogs thanks to their batting (Mathew Hayden, Justin Langer, Michael Slater, Ricky Ponting, the Waugh brothers, Ian Healy, Adam Gilchrist), their bowling (Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Jason Gillespie, Stuart MacGill) and a ruthless streak that was something new in international cricket. This saw them notch up a record 16 wins in the trot twice and 5-0 clean sweeps over West Indies and England.
By 2008, with the retirement of the long time stalwarts and with their replacements not being up to the same lofty standards, the fall of the Aussies was imminent and it only remained to be seen whether India or South Africa would take over at the top. In becoming the top ranked Test team in the game, India fulfilled a long time ambition and even as they stay at the top what is surprising is the Aussies' steep fall. Hardly anyone would have expected them to slide so quickly to fifth, though if it is any consolation they are still No 1 in the ODI rankings.