30th January 2016
Patrolling the Boundary – a view from the outfield
So India are the Test World Champions. You’re kidding me, right? Really?
The morning after England had secured a Test series win in South Africa (who until that point had topped the ICC’s Test rankings table), the news emerged that India were now reckoned as the new ‘no. 1’ after South Africa’s defeat and dethroning.
This couldn’t be correct, surely? Is that the reward for loading home pitches and preparing raging bunsens to stuff South Africa in November/December?
I wondered if I’d woken up in some ridiculous alternate universe where the system to evaluate the world’s best Test cricket team was determined by weird, unfathomable algebraic equations that were both illogical and counter-intuitive. And perhaps even worse, completely lacking in accountability or transparency.
Nope. This, sadly, unbelievably, is Test cricket’s REALITY.
This is the ICC’s Test Rankings System, described recently by the Yorkshire Post’s Chris Waters as “an unfathomable waste of time”; and as “pointless” and “completely irrelevant” by Two Men Out’s Jarrod Kimber and Andy Zaltzman on ESPN Cricinfo.
Admittedly, it is pretty close points-wise in the rankings’ top half-dozen, with a DRS tracking-system perhaps being needed to determine between the placings; while at the bottom there is a huge modern bat-width between the teams on the lower rungs of the ladder.
But however close, I really don’t think many pundits, fans, or analysts seriously consider India to be Test cricket’s best team.
What I am going to suggest in this article is not only that they aren’t – but that they are identified as such because the system used is just plain wrong.
And I am going to offer two alternative, workable systems – and suggest that one of them ought to replace the current one.
In fact, in both versions of those alternative systems PAKISTAN come out on top. Indeed, perhaps oddly and coincidentally (or perhaps because they are similarly practical and reliable methods) those two systems actually provide identical placings for all ten Test playing countries:
- South Africa
- New Zealand
- Sri Lanka
- West Indies
What I also intend to argue in this piece is that being the ‘best’ and being ‘champion’ is not always the same thing; and needn’t be when assessing Test cricket teams.
The ICC rankings are a poor indicator of either ‘best’ or ‘champion’ and ought to be replaced by one of a couple of simpler, more transparent and understandable team evaluation models.
The ICC rankings have been problematic and inconsistent since their birth. Exact same final scorelines in separate series have been given different weight in different circumstances, apparently on a whim. A hypothetical example: an Australian 2-1 win in a 5-match series in Sri Lanka may have gained fewer points than a South African 2-1 win in a 5-match series in England. Why? Because the compositor felt one had greater merit than the other. He may of course be right. But arbitrarily placed opinion has absolutely no place in a data-driven system. And much of the composition of the ICC rankings as developed by David Kendix (the ground scorer at Lord’s and member of the Association of Cricket Statisticians) seems in its years of existence to have been influenced by arbitrary assessments. (If you’d like to read more about the ICC rankings and the system they incorporate please click here and here).
Added to that we have the unsatisfactory element of the time-frame. Often, what the rankings appear to reflect are the achievements of a team in recent years, not of the immediate, current vintage. This was certainly the case in the recent series between ‘no. 1’ team South Africa and England. Many shrewd judges expected an England win, despite what the rankings seemed to be telling us. But this result was not a surprise or upset of the form-book – it was merely a demonstration that the rankings are hugely flawed.
What about the old maxim ‘only as good as your last game’? Well, the current ICC system rewards success achieved in previous years – with a diminishing return as those years and results ebb away. This comes to pass in the ludicrous annual ‘rankings readjustment’ at the end of April.
The clock ticks round, and previous results slip away from the evaluated data. Hence, we often get a new-world champion proclaimed in May without any recent result or match having been played. Ridiculous.
This year is a good case in point: we are told that if Australia defeat New Zealand in their series next month then they can overtake India at the top of the tree. And then watch as a few days later the annual readjustment kicks in. Don’t be surprised to find Pakistan or England anointed champions. But do you know who it will be? I don’t. I doubt hardly anyone really does. Surely that demonstrates what a silly, unsuitable system it is?
The first of the two alternative systems I’d like to outline and propose in its place came from an excellent observation made by cricket commentator Daniel Norcross in a recent edition of Peter Miller’s Geek & Friends podcast. He pointed out that if one looked at England’s bilateral series results they currently ‘hold the trophy’ in seven out of nine of those contests – the two they don’t hold being versus Sri Lanka and Pakistan – ironically, the two teams they host (and would expect to beat) in the English summer of 2016. Victory in those would be 9 out of 9. Should that make them world champion? There is a pretty strong argument that it should. Incidentally, in my second, and preferred alternate system England would also take the world championship title with victory over Pakistan this year.
But to return to Daniel Norcross’s point: England have a comparative score of 7-2 in bilateral Test series. How do the other nations compare? Pakistan and Australia also have a 7-2 record; South Africa and India stand at 6-3; New Zealand at 5-4; Sri Lanka 4-5; West Indies 2-7; Bangladesh 1-8; and Zimbabwe 0-9. These figures can easily be drawn up as table – and when teams have an identical record, the most recent individual result between those two would act as a tie-breaker: hence, Pakistan come out on top because they beat both England and Australia in their most recent contests; with England ahead of Australia thanks to their Ashes success in 2015. India lead South Africa because of that recent thrashing:
- Pakistan 7-2
- England 7-2
- Australia 7-2
- India 6-3
- South Africa 6-3
- New Zealand 5-4
- Sri Lanka 4-5
- West Indies 2-7
- Bangladesh 1-8
- Zimbabwe 0-9
The ‘Norcross’ system is elegant and simple – and far better than the current rankings system. Arguments against it might be that it would be weighted more in favour of teams who play a greater proportion of their Test series at home – but then isn’t the current system reflecting exactly that with its evaluation of India as the Test no. 1?
What this system would lack is the cut and thrust of a ‘title decider’ – more on that shortly. There would be occasions when the teams in a bilateral series would be effecting the outcome at the top of such a ranking list, but probably more often than not in a similar way to the recent, unsatisfactory upshot of England’s win over South Africa: Team B beats Team A – Team C becomes ‘champion’.
My preferred and recommended system, which I will outline in a moment, would necessitate a ‘world title’ bout or defense each time the no.1 plays a Test series.
With or without a ranking system, or a league table structure, people will always argue about ‘who is the best’. Being ‘top’ does not necessarily prove you are the best, although it is a useful indicator. In knockout competitions, sport is littered with examples of the best team not winning: think for example of the FIFA World Cups of 1954, 1974 or 1982.
But in each of those and numerous other cases we know who was the ‘champion’.
‘Best’ is subjective. And argument and debate over the issue is healthy and enjoyable. Opinions matter, but they are not facts.
‘Champion’ is definitive, unarguable and clearcut. Facts matter too, and provide useful points of reference for opinions.
I believe Test cricket would benefit from having a clearly defined ‘champion’, and the current ICC rankings do not authoritatively provide that.
The ICC Test rankings provide neither an authoritative ‘champion’, nor a definitive ‘best’. In this respect the system is an inadequate, ‘Bob Cunis’ way of doing things: it is neither one thing nor the other.
What is obvious to all sports watchers is that you don’t have to be the ‘best’ to be the ‘champion’. And often that very contradiction adds spice and intrigue to contests. I doubt many people really considered James ‘Buster’ Douglas the best heavyweight boxer in the world when he amazed all by defeating Mike Tyson in 1990. But we all marvelled at the fact of the new world champion.
Not dissimilarly, one of the things that marked the career of ‘the greatest’, Muhammad Ali was that his successes were almost book-ended by victories in fights in which many analysts in advance genuinely feared for his life: upsets over Sonny Liston in 1964 and George Foreman in 1974 proved not only that he was ‘champion’ but also settled debates about who was the ‘best’. Before those triumphs most opinions, and the facts, showed that Ali was not the ‘best’.
I’ve wandered deliberately into boxing in a deliberate attempt to get us thinking about the concept of the ‘world title decider’. In short, this is the model that I would propose and favour to replace the ICC’s non-sensical rankings.
The proposed World Test Championship is still probably the best idea to decide a world cricket champion, but the notion has stalled repeatedly in recent years and continues to look like an unlikely prospect. The concept may be doomed to failure – much like the one previous World Test Championship held over a hundred years ago in England.
The 1912 Tri-angular Tournament featured the three Test-playing nations of that time, England, Australia and South Africa – who between them played 9 Test Matches, consisting of three 3-Test series. England emerged as the eventual winners.
But the competition, which had taken about five years to organise and agree to the scheduling, was blighted by dreadful weather, a very weak South African side and an Aussie team suffering from the withdrawal of five key players who took strike action against the Australian Board of Control. There was no plan, or desire to repeat the event.
In that respect, England could be argued to still be the World Test Champions; in much the same way that as the winners of the first, last and only Olympic cricket tournament in 1900, the UK is still the reigning Olympic Cricket Champions.
A World Test Championship tournament is the most desirable and simple way to decide who is world champion. We don’t have quite the same arguments about who is ‘best’ and who is ‘champion’ in ODI or T20 cricket because we have a tournament that decides the first and a ranking system that suggests the latter. Those ICC ranking systems may be as poor and problematic as the Test rankings, but it doesn’t matter in quite the same way because the regular World Cups in the shorter formats satisfactorily settle the issue.
So until a World Test Championship can be organised as a practical, realistic event then we need an alternative model to serve to determine who is de facto ‘champion’ – while allowing the cricket fans of the world to continue arguing about who is ‘best’. The current ICC ranking system is not that model. The ‘Norcross’ system is one option. The ‘Squash Ladder’, outlined below, is another.
To return to the boxing concept of ‘title fights’ and ‘championship bouts’, I believe that having what would in effect be a World Test Champion ‘belt’ would greatly add to the drama of some Test cricket, and obviously end the ‘who is champion?’ element of the debate.
If one then builds from that premise we can find a structure that supports all other teams below the ‘champion’ and determines a definitive placing for them within the model.
But we don’t need to build a structure, because we can adopt a simple model that already exists elsewhere in sport: the squash ladder.
Under this system, a player (or team) enter a contest and the winner is placed one place above the loser. Thus, if team number 8 (let’s say West Indies) beats team number 4 (let’s say Pakistan) then WIndies would rise to 4th, Pakistan would drop to 5th and the teams previously at 5, 6 and 7 would each also fall one place. Thus, if Zimbabwe shocked the world and won a Test series versus the no. 1 team (let’s say South Africa) then they would be crowned the ‘champion’. Yes, we would know that they are not the ‘best’, but we would applaud and delight in their moment of glory. This would be no more unbelievable or unacceptable than Buster Douglas’s victory over Tyson. And Zimbabwe would remain ‘champion’ until they lost a subsequent Test series.
This would naturally have an effect on the planning of Tests, and could seriously undermine the Future Tours Programme (FTP), with teams try to schedule series at short notice – on the run in pursuit of the title like Jack Johnson in his tracking of Tommy Burns in 1908. But I don’t think much more damage could be done to the FTP, and while ‘world title contests’ could be a little random and unpredictable, where would sport be without ‘the luck of the draw’?
In the ‘squash ladder’ system movement in the rankings would be fluid, understandable, and most importantly give each series meaning. One team will always be looking for progress up the table while the other is protecting its own position.
Of course to adopt such a structure we’d need a starting point – and the obvious one is the beginning of Test Match cricket itself.
In this respect, I have traced Test cricket’s results progression, and in a subsequent piece I will outline a potted history of highlights – and recount how the title ‘champion’ has changed hands over the years to end up currently with Pakistan.
That pursuit of the Test Cricket World Title, the story of its loss and its gain, provides added meaning, context and value to many iconic series and moments in Test cricket’s history.
David Oram is an Englishman resident in Islamabad following West Indies cricket. When living in Barbados he was the ‘statto’ and sometime presenter of ‘Mason & Guests’ – Voice of Barbados’ weekly cricket talk show, the leading cricket radio show in the West Indies – hosted by the Caribbean’s principal radio commentator, Andrew Mason. You can tweet me at DavidOram@colblimp1983.