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A good day for the test cricket world rankings

The hottest story in cricket just now, if you are an England cricket fan like me, is the apparently near simultaneous resignations of the England captain and the England coach, but I think the bigger story in the long-run is the third test between Australia and South Africa, which Australia won this morning (my time). Had South Africa won, they would have won the series 3-0. As it was, they won the series 2-1, and Australia had a consolation victory.

Except that actually Australia achieved more than that. They achieved, by this otherwise merely consolation victory, the continuation of their reign as the top-rated test cricket team. This was what the match was about, given that the South Africans had already won the series, in other words it was about plenty. Without the test rankings system, this game would indeed have been decidedly empty. With these recently contrived rankings, Australia still stay top country. Now okay, you could argue that they aren’t really the top country any more, having just lost to India and now to South Africa. Well, maybe so, but sporting tournaments have a force of their own. If, according to the rules and calculations of whatever tournament it is, you win, then by golly you win and that still counts for something.

I remember when Greece, a palpably second-rate team but coached, as I remember it now, by a German who knew his stuff, fluked and battled their way to winning the European soccer championship. They clearly were not the top team in Europe. But did that mean that their win in this particular tournament meant nothing? Did it hell.

Australia are still top of the world test cricket rankings, and that’s a whole lot better than not being top, which is what would have happened had South Africa won this latest game. Equally significant is the general principle that this particular game illustrates, which is that the world rankings will regularly confer major meaning on otherwise rather meaningless games. And given that having a great big get-together tournament to play five-day test cricket would probably be just too long-drawn-out and unwieldy ever to happen, then the world rankings is all there is for test cricket. In the absence of any other way of deciding what the pecking order is in test cricket, these rankings can only grow and grow in significance.

Add another fact about sports tournaments or sports ranking systems. They take time to get going. The journalists take a while to understand them, and to write about them and get excited about them. It takes a while for fans and players to care about them. But then your team wins, and suddenly it matters a whole lot more and goes on mattering, even when your team reverts to losing most of the time. Think European Cup, again in soccer. When that started, lots of teams just didn’t bother, especially British teams. But the closer that British teams (remember Celtic and Man U in the 1960s) got to winning that, the more it meant, and when they finally did win it a few times, the European Cup became enthroned as a huge tournament for British teams to win, arguably the hugest of them all.

These test cricket world rankings will be like that. This rolling ‘tournament’ has only been around for a few years, and maybe the rules ought now to be examined and changed, so that they don’t now say that Australia are the best when they probably are now not the best. Details. The point is, in more and more cricket spots and cricket commentary places, these world rankings are starting seriously to count. You can bet that in the country that finally does ‘officially’ topple Australia from the top spot, which can only now be a matter of time, that country will from that moment on take these rankings very seriously indeed. And once everyone in cricket does take them seriously, it won’t just be moving from second to top that causes a stir. Moving from fifth to fourth will also raise a cheer, maybe, again, in the last game of a series that would otherwise be drearily beside the point, as this Australia/SA game would have been, but actually was not.

I think I may have underestimated the time-lag effect, when I first noticed this ranking system, way back in 2003 when they first got it started. Otherwise that first piece holds up pretty well, especially when you consider that it contains this choice quote (from 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.

Precisely so.

A perspicacious commenter on that posting criticised the ratings – the detail of how they are done rather than the principle of them – by arguing that they give too much value to results in the not-so-recent past. Hence, presumably, now, Australia still remaining top. Good point, but as I say, a detail. This does not affect the excellence of the basic idea. It just becomes one more thing for cricket fans and players and officials to argue about.

Lower down as well as at the top, these rankings have for a while now been applying pressure and creating meaning. Going back to that English ruckus, which is all about the recent battles between the England captain and the England coach, the fact that England have recently slipped down the world rankings in a measurable and publicly measured way is all part of why the England coach also had to step down, and not just the England captain for being too publicly rude about the England coach. England were second in the rankings not so long ago, leading the chasing pack behind Australia. Now they are fifth. A hardworking journalist could, it’s true, have done sums like this for himself, and announced that England had indeed slipped from … two-ish to five-ish. But how much easier and more persuasive it is for him if the sums have already been done, and are official.

So, whoever contrived these rankings, well done chaps. You can be proud of yourselves, and especially proud today. But, keep your eye on the details of how the rankings are done, and be ready to modify them.

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6 comments to A good day for the test cricket world rankings

  • Kim du Toit

    Just means that I, an ex-Seffrican, can’t crow too loudly over the foul Aussies for the moment.

    (Even though I’m a naturalized U.S. citizen, I can still cheer South Africa on in cricket, as the U.S., of all the former colonies, does not play cricket and therefore I have no divided loyalties. I just wish they hadn’t changed the team’s name from “Springboks” to “Proteas” but that’s a gripe for another time.)

    Still: 2-1 in Tests! In OZ, especially!

    I loathe limited-overs cricket (slugfests for the ignorant, I call them), and my only wish was that the latest Test series could have been decided over five matches rather than just three.

    On the Boks!!!! (and a pox on the silly Proteas name)

  • Timothy

    I think you are mistaken about the rankings. FIFA international rankings have been around for quite a while now, and no one cares about them. Until the international test calendar is more even and some sort of prize attached to the rankings they will remain just a curiosity.

    What I would like to see, for Test Cricket and possibly also Association Fooball, is not just international rankings but a proper international round-robin tournament, such that, over a set four year period, each team plays each other team home and away a set number of times, eg one three-Test series at home, one away, with points awarded eg 2 for winning a Test, 1 for a draw or tie, and the top of the ladder at the end of 4 years receives a trophy, and is named World Test Cricket Champions 2009-2012.

    A football tournament would have to be divided into divisions, with perhaps the top 20 teams, the next 20 etc, each playing each other home and away over 4 years, followed by promotion and relegation.

  • Despite the defeat yesterday – with just 10 balls left, nogal – the SA media and cricket fans are quite rightly delighted with the outcome of the series.
    And Graeme Smith has unwittingly doen his arch nemesis KP a big favour by stealing each and every headline away from the unfortunately now ex-England captain by stepping out onto the pitch at the SCG in “borrowed kit”, with a broken baby finger and facing less than 3 overs before finally losing the match for SA.

    Every single paper is crowing about “Captain Courageous” despite the fact that he had really big gloves on and absolutely no bearing on result of the game at all.

    Still, someone with the demure, retiring attitude of Smith will surely not let it go to his head. He’s back to Cape Town for treatment on his injuries now. I would imagine that will mean a “couple” of cocktails at Cafe Caprice this evening, where he will wow his adoring fans with tales of derring-do from lands far away… Again.

  • As an Australian supporter, I will confess the win in the third test didn’t mean much to me. When Australia were really bad in the mid 1980s, consolation wins in dead rubbers meant quite a bit, but in a decline they don’t console you much for the loss. Keeping top spot in the world rankings doesn’t mean too much either. I tend to see the cricket world rankings as like the rankings in golf and Wimbledon. I don’t really think a system of rankings compares with a tournament with a final and a clear winner. (I would be interested to see what fans of American College football think of this. As far as I can tell, they determine the national champion with a vote of journalists, but it is a world that is a little too strange for me to understand. “Division I-FBS football is currently the only NCAA sport that has a mythical championship, rather than one decided by a playoff- or tournament-based system”. To quote Buffy, I would like to think that I speak for everyone here when I say Huh?).

    Being number one in the rankings may be nice, but it matters little compared to winning the Masters or Wimbledon. In any event, Australia will lose the number one ranking before long. As it happens, Australia’s next test series is against South Africa, as for some reason the two countries have developed a tradition of playing home and away in the same season. If Australia could win in South Africa, that would rather impress me. My friends and relatives in Australia are not happy about losing, but have none the less been saying that it has been an excellent series in terms of good close cricket. Hopefully we get three more tests of that. It still wouldn’t change the fact that Australia are in decline and there needs to be a purge of the people running Australian cricket (who are too fat and complacent) before another good team can be built. Hopefully, though, the Ashes can be won for one last time next summer.

    At least the English seem to be doing their best to help on that score.

  • Kevin B

    For those who would like to see a tournament style World Test championship played between all the test nations over a period of years, I have one word.

    “The Ashes!”

    (OK, it’s two words so sue me.)

    The ICC has been trying for years to get everyone to play everyone else in some regular fashion, but England and Australia are always saying the magic words.

    Traditional rivalries put bums on seats, and entice the TV companies and sponsers to part with big bucks.

    Incidentally Michael, as I understand it, the same is true of American College football. While some would like to produce an effective way of deciding which is the best College team, the guys who fork out the money for the scholarships that drive the game are much more interested in seeing their ‘Poo-chuckers’ beating their great rivals the ‘Mud-slingers’ like they did when they were at school.

    (Names changed to protect the guilty.)

  • Timothy

    Kevin B – As an Australian I’d hate to see the Ashes go, but they could be accomodated in a Test championship easily enough – the only difference is they would have to be decided over three matches every second year, rather than five matches every second year. I think the Ashes would cope. As test cricket gradually diminishes in importance in the eyes of the public, a tournament which meant that the fate of the World Championship could hang on a Test between, say, Australia and Sri Lanka would greatly increase interest in such Tests, in the same way that an EPL match between ManU and WestHam is of interest to ManU fans because it could be cruical to ManU winning the League, even though ManU are clearly the better team, and would remain so in the even of a WestHam victory.