London - England will go on from their Ashes 'annihilation' of Australia to overtake India and South Africa, and become the world's top-ranked Test nation within 18 months, according to former captain Alec Stewart.
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The 47-year-old, who played in a record 133 tests and led his country 15 times, said third-ranked England would carry on improving after the recent 3-1 Ashes victory in Australia.
"England are on the right road because the players are going to stay together for a length of time," Stewart told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"If you look at (top-ranked) India, Sachin Tendulkar won't go on for ever and nor will people like Rahul Dravid, so that side will gradually break up, whereas our team will be very similar for the next four or five years.
"I think we are growing and improving while India and South Africa are just about at their peak. I seriously believe we will hit that number one spot within 18 months," added Stewart.
The former Surrey batsman-wicketkeeper, who amassed 8,463 test runs at an average of 39.54 before retiring in 2003, was delighted with England's recent victory especially after being on the receiving end of several Ashes defeats in his career.
"It was fantastic to go to a place where we haven't won for 24 years and absolutely hammer them," said Stewart. "I might be an ex-player, but I'm a huge England fan and that was great to watch.
"I never like to say I told you so but I did predict on BBC radio before the series that it was going to be 3-1. I didn't, though, predict they would win three matches by an innings.
"I thought it would be closer than that. I knew Australia wouldn't be a great side because of the top players they have lost in recent years, but I didn't expect England to play as well as they did - they absolutely annihilated them," added Stewart.
The former captain, who is also second behind Paul Collingwood in terms of England one-day international appearances (170), said the pre-tour planning of coach Andy Flower and captain Andrew Strauss was the key to Ashes glory.
"The preparation, itinerary and attention to detail from Andy's coaching staff was first class and shone through," said Stewart.
"Strauss also led very well, the combination of Strauss and Flower has been tremendous. They are hard working, they leave nothing to chance and they demand everyone mucks in together.
"There are no so-called superstars, everyone is expected to do the hard yards and to perform."
Australia may have lost great players like Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer in recent years, but Stewart said that should not detract from England's achievement.
"The team I played in probably played against the best side ever, and we certainly weren't as good as the current England side," said Stewart.
"Australia now are certainly not the side they were, but we've played exceptionally good cricket. I wouldn't want people to think that because this Australian team isn't as good that England wouldn't have beaten the old side too," added Stewart.
"Who's to say they wouldn't have beaten them too? We'll never know. All you can say is that we outplayed them and performed in every facet of the game."
Stewart, however, said the management team would not allow the players to rest on their laurels.
"The good thing about the Flower-Strauss partnership is they seem very level headed," he added. "They win the Ashes and then say, 'Right it's time to move on to this month's seven one-day internationals and then the 50-over World Cup (in February).'
"They want to become the best side in the world in all forms of the game. As they move on they're ticking things off along the way and that is what I like about them.
"They quite rightly made sure they celebrated the Ashes success, but they also made sure they kept their feet firm firmly on the ground."