Cricket: Fans deserve better than insular rankings
South Africa’s drop from the Test rankings came as a surprise to many, from fans to coaches. You’d be hard-pressed to argue that there’s a better team in Test cricket than Australia at the moment, but their climb to the summit and their potential dip back down is completely devoid of context. Fans of the game deserve much better than this. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
If you, like many other cricket fans, were left confused last week with South Africa’s sudden plummet from the Test rankings summit, you were not alone. After being reaffirmed as the number one Test team in April, banking a tidy cheque in the process, that avenue of pleasure was closed on Thursday.
Even South Africa’s coach, Russell Domingo, was taken somewhat by surprise. In an interview with Cricinfo, he said: "I am a little bit surprised, because I thought there was quite a substantial gap between the number one- and number two-ranked side, but that's the way it is. We just have to get on with it and play cricket again."
Domingo is quite right. Despite the 2-1 series loss to Australia earlier this year, South Africa was still 12 points clear at the top of the rankings. Then came May, signalling a new two-year cycle for rankings which saw the results from 2010-11 removed from the calculation while the 2012-13 results carried less weight. Far more important were more recent results so Australia's 5-0 drubbing of England in the Ashes and the 2-1 win over South Africa elevated them to the top.
Australia losing 4-0 to India last year and losing the Ashes in England 3-0 seemingly didn’t matter all that much. Considering Test cricket is played over a long period of time and some teams play far fewer Tests than others, one would assume that its ranking system would reflect similarly.
Even some Australian players were unconvinced about the way things worked. Chris Rogers admitted that a 4-0 loss isn’t exactly the mark of a top quality team.
"I don't know, personally," Rogers said, with regards to Australia being number one.
"Obviously, there's still some unfinished business. Losing four-nil in India - you can't do that if you're number one - but I think to beat South Africa in South Africa meant a lot. They were number one and to go [and] beat them in their place; I think that is a big achievement. I think we're going in the right direction and we just need to keep playing well."
Over the last 12 months, Australia does have a better win/loss ratio than anybody else, though. They have won seven, lost four and drawn two of the 13 Tests they have played, but they have played almost double the amount of cricket compared to South Africa. In the same time period, South Africa have played just seven Tests, winning three and losing three. Those results are a far cry from South Africa's dominant reign, but prior to the series loss to Australia this year, they had not lost a Test series since 2008-09.
And here’s the rub: the usual movement of the rankings will remain. That means South Africa could go back to number one by beating Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. That return to the summit won’t carry quite the same feeling as when they toppled England from their perch in 2012, but the rankings, and the ICC for that matter, never cared much for sentiment anyway. Australia, the best team in world cricket, could dip down to number two without even facing a ball. How is that logical?
While it would be difficult to argue that there is a better Test team in world cricket at the moment than Australia, the rankings and the way the number one team is decided clearly needs some sort of context. Do many people know who is ranked on top of the soccer world rankings? Very few will, but almost every soccer fan will know who currently holds the World Cup.
Cricket, as with any other sport, is dependent on the fans. It feeds of their broadcaster money, their bums on seats, their interest and the relationship with the custodians of the game is symbiotic. Fans are being robbed of any sort of context which is not helped by the discrepancy in number of Tests played by full-member nations. Test cricket is already guilty of elitism which has shut the door to full member status for anyone in the immediate future, but it continues to add crimes against fans to its list of offence.
Test cricket is in desperate need of context. While the “new Future Tours Programme” is currently being mulled over, it is important for the custodians of the game to think a bit further. It might be profitable and entertaining for the big draw cards of the game to play long series against each other in the short-term, but it’s a formula that could get very tired very quickly.
A league system has been proposed before, but it was blocked because it limited the ability of bigger teams to play games for the sake of broadcasting rights. The Test Championship tried to sputter itself to life, but was postponed and eventually cancelled. The reasoning was due to “lukewarm” commercial interest.
While the format of the competition was never perfect, it was an idea that had some legs. It was something which would have added extra context to series, context which fans could digest and something for players to work towards. That’s what sport needs.
So, here’s a thought: what if the commercial interest were disregarded and the interest of fans and players were taken into account? What if the commercial interest became less important and the best interest of promoting the game was taken into account instead?
The ICC is a reasonably wealthy organisation which earns enough money to fund something like the Test Championship without external sources needing to be interest in it. Sure, it doesn’t exist to hand out welfare cheques, but it does exist to serve the game and its fans. Currently, it’s failing on all accounts, while its short-term ambitions to stuff its coffers are becoming increasingly unpalatable. DM
Photo: Australia's Nathan Lyon is congratulated for taking the wicket of South Africa's Jacques Rudolph during the Australia v South Africa Test Series in Adelaide, Australia, 25 November 2012. EPA/JAMES ELSBY