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.
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.