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The significance of the new Test Match Cricket international ranking system

My excuse for writing about cricket is that writing about cricket means writing about Zimbabwe, which is one of the wretched-of-the-earth countries just now, lest we forget. But the truth is that I just love cricket, and that I have loved it ever since the days of Hutton, Compton, May, Cowdrey, Laker, Statham, Truman, Dexter … and those are just (some of) the English names.

So, what is the big story in cricket just now? Read Jennings, and the news is just that people have been, you know, playing cricket. Look at the cricket web sites and it’s just cricket as usual. Who’s in and who’s out. Who’s firing on all cylinders, and who has a cylinder injury and will be missing the next few games. Earlier in the week, the British cricket pages were full of how well the new England quick bowlers had done, and how badly the Zimbabweans had batted against them on that horribly one-sided Saturday when nineteen wickets fell and by the end Zimbabwe had lost by an innings in three days. (Girls and Americans: “by an innings” is very bad, and three days is not long at all.)

Yet above and beyond all these regular comings and goings, I believe that cricket posterity will have no hesitation in deciding that the current big cricket story happened just over a week ago, just before the England-Zimbabwe series got started, in the form of the newly announced ICC Test Championship table.

The new ICC Test Championship takes into account the result of every individual Test Match with a bonus awarded for winning a series. It also recognises the strength of the opposition in calculating the points awarded.

. . .

The ICC Test Championship reflects performances in all Tests completed since a given date (currently 1st August 1999), in contrast to the previous system which included some series played in 1996/97 yet excluded some more recent series. More recent matches have a stronger weighting and the rankings are refreshed every August.

A rating of 100 reflects average performance, so a team winning and losing a similar number of matches and playing a broad mix of opponents will have a rating close to 100.

For the up-to-date ICC Test Championship table plus full scenarios for forthcoming series and details of the formula for calculating ratings visit the official ICC website.

So why is this new “Championship” such a big deal? Isn’t it just another ranking system of the sort they have long had for individual cricketers, and for the individual players of other sports like tennis, golf, snooker, and many more? So, in other words, what?

The answer lies in the peculiar nature of Test Match cricket. All the other big sports, including One Day Cricket, have actual world championships events. Ranking systems like this Test Cricket one are thus, for these sports, of secondary importance.

For example, the current England rugby team, if you believe the ranking system for international rugby, are now the best international rugby team in the world. But this will count for nothing if England don’t win the forthcoming rugby World Cup. (In my opinion any of England, Australia, New Zealand or France could win.)

But Test Match cricket is such an unwieldy game that a Test Match “world cup” would either last for ever, or else change the nature of Test Match Cricket so profoundly as to make the event meaningless. Test Matches, by their nature, come in clutches of five day games, called “series”, which resemble months-long military campaigns, not one-off decisive battles. Change that, and it isn’t Test Cricket any more; it’s some new hybrid.

Which means that this new Test Cricket ranking system is it. It’s the World Championship of Test Cricket. The thing itself. Show me another international sports ranking system that is as important within its own sport as this one immediately is within Test Cricket. Now that they’ve finally got this thing working, the only surprise is that they didn’t do it ten or twenty years sooner.

The effect of the announcement of this ranking system is comparable, then, to something like the establishment of the National Football League, or, for cricket, something like the invention of England’s cricket County Championship. Before May 2003, random series of Test Matches would occur in this or that country. Some of them, like England v. Australia (always) or any team against Australia now (because by any ranking system you can think of Australia are now the obvious best side), are of great significance to the players and punters. Others count for far less. From May 2003 onwards, all that changes, and every game counts.

Games during series that had still to be decided used to count for far, far more than those awful, pointless games that occurred at the end of series that one team has already won. But now, every Test Match means something, just as every Premiership League football game means Premier League points, no matter what teams are playing. For when quoting that ICC Press Release above, I left out the killer paragraph, which is this:

The system means that there are no longer any `dead rubber’ Test Matches and that in any series both teams have the opportunity to improve or worsen their rating.

Thus, for example, if the horribly weakened Zimbabwe side loses the second match in their three match series in England just as they lost their first game, as is altogether likely, the third and final game, even though it won’t affect the matter of who wins the series, will still count for something. That brilliant West Indies win against Australia in the final game of their recent series against them, the three previous games of which they had lost, didn’t only cheer up the Windies and give them an excuse for a party; it also now improves their international Championship ranking.

In other words, Test Match Cricket, which is the heart and soul of the game, just got much better.

More comments and links at übersportingpundit.

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12 comments to The significance of the new Test Match Cricket international ranking system

  • Given that it is a two match series, I personally am not expecting the third and final match to count for much. But that could just be me?

  • Brian Micklethwait


    Let me rephrase it then. If there HAD been a third match, as there might have been, then that match, under the old system, might have been an empty one.

  • David Crawford

    The best comment I’ve ever heard about cricket went something like this:

    When cricket grows up it wants to be baseball.

    ‘Nough said.

  • Behold, we have a HERETIC in our midst!

  • Innocent Abroad

    I’m glad that’s sorted out, then…

    However, the ICC rankings system is open to the charge that it gives equal weight to series contested several years ago as it does to series played recently.

    Just to be daft 9or maybe not) I suggest that a better system might be for the fans, say via Cricinfo.com, to vote for the best team using the Eurovision method (i.e. you can’t vote for your own) although all the Indians here and in the US might bugger it up.

  • Ronald

    Thank God. A cricket lover on the blogosphere.

    A TEST cricket lover at that.


  • Brian Micklethwait

    Innocent Abroad:

    I hope you’re joking about the voting thing. I’d love it if someone organised something along the lines you say. People’s choice awards, etc. But as the basis of the entire competition: urrrgh!

    About the excessive weighting of long gone games – good point.

    I do not claim that the system just announced is the best possible. For starters I haven’t even studied in detail how it’s being done.

    What I do believe is that this “Championship” will be the focus of much attention, and much attention therefore also to its shortcomings, real or imagined. We only need a bad team who used recently to be very good (who’ve lost, say, their two best bowlers and haven’t properly replaced them) to stay high up the list for changes to be demanded, and in due course made, given what you say.

    This kind of arguing has only just begun.

  • I am not sure that this system does give equal weighting to series played several years ago, actually. It might – I haven’t checked. Certainly though it is an improvement on the previous league table setup, as this one only uses about three years worth of games, and that one used games played as long ago as six years ago. (However, it did not include all games played in that time, only some). If I was designing a rating system, I would use some sort of system where the results were weighted using some sort of exponential decay function. This isn’t hard to do, and they may have done it.

  • Also, could we get Brett Lee and Shoaib Akhtar to bowl a few of their quick yorkers at David Crawford? That should solve the problem quickly enough.

  • James Dudek

    Why do we need a championship table? Why can’t it be like boxing where Australia is the champion and the other minnows have to play each other for the honour of matching it with the best?

  • Innocent Abroad

    Yes, I was joking about a Eurovision-style ratings system… the details of the real one were certainly on cricinfo.com a few days ago.

  • Having looked at it, it is true that games played two years ago are weighted less than recent ones, but not using a nice smooth methodology like I suggested. There is a cutoff date about a year ago. Earlier than which matches become half as important, and then a year earlier than that they drop out completely. It’s rather cruder than what I would like to see, to be honest.