Derek Pringle column – Ranking system is in need of change, or scrap it

To be the best has to incorporate a worthiness, which is why the International Cricket Council should resurrect plans for a World Test Championship. Rather than mothball it simply because TV broadcasters find it an awkward sell to their advertisers, they should instead shift boulders to find a definitive solution for judging who is the best Test team in world cricket and not just the one capable of reaching the peak by exploiting the oxygen of home advantage.

At the moment it is decided by a series of bilateral tours whose results are rated then fed into a rankings table, of which India currently sits atop with 112 ranking points, though that could change within the week. Pakistan are second on 111 with Australia and England third and fourth on 108.

It looks tight, but are those teams worthy of their positions? A week ago, Australia were top but lost 3-0 away to seventh-ranked Sri Lanka, while India, who have usurped them, have not won a series in England, Australia or South Africa for nine years. The best should surely not have such gaping holes in their CVs?

TV rules the roost when it comes to most sports, but Test cricket is at one of those junctures where what happens next could have major consequences for its immediate future. So far, the ICC’s plan is to overhaul the red-ball game with the introduction of two divisions with a meeting in September to talk matters through and stress test the system. Yet you only have to look at current rankings versus recent results – in particular Australia’s hammering by Sri Lanka (a ranking that under the newly proposed system would have them on the cusp of division two), to see that it will not be as simple as all that.

The rankings, worked out by an algorithm itself the product of the mind of an actuary, have started to look, if not flawed, then unsatisfactory. Last week, before England lost to Pakistan at the Oval, they, and their opponents, could both have ousted Australia as the No. 1 team in the world, should results have gone their way.

In Pakistan’s case that may still happen though they will need the West Indies to win or draw their final Test against India. And yet there is a taint of unworthiness among all the top contenders that would not stick to the champion of a knockout contest, as opposed to that of a league leader in which the bilateral series deciding their position can vary between two and five matches.

Let’s take Australia, the No. 1 Test side until that humbling defeat away by lowly Sri Lanka. The ranking points system placed them top, but did they deserve to be there having lost all but one of their last seven series (now eight) in Asia? Home advantage has become a powerful force in determining results, but Australia’s record suggest a serious flaw not only to their game but – when you can top the table by not coping in a part of the world where the majority of cricket takes place – to the rankings themselves.

It is a bit like Warwickshire’s triumph in the 2004 County Championship. They did so by not beating a single side after July 24,  exploiting changes to the points structure which awarded more value to the draw.

As Wisden noted: “No team has won the title with a lower percentage of wins (five with 11 draws).”

Unsurprisingly, the system was changed, something ICC must do here.

Darren Lehmann, Australia’s current coach, said his team should be “embarrassed” by their three-nil drubbing at the hands of Sri Lanka. Yet in the same breath he absolves his players of blame by pointing out that the hectic nature of current schedules makes it impossible for players to practise the necessary skills required for Asian conditions. With the Aussies due to tour India next year, it is, he stresses, a real concern.

If a Test Championship with knockout stages should ever get off the ground (doubtful given the good of the game will never triumph over TV money that does not want change), it should be done on a home and away basis with the top four-ranked sides essentially playing a four-match semi-final (two home, two away), before a best-of-three final.

The showpiece denouement would be played at the home of the top-ranked team in the final (perks for league position). A formula derived from pitting net-runs per wicket and net-wicket per runs, in a decisive way, would help to decide the winner in the event of a drawn series, though you could also do it on a countback of results.

The thing that would really give the event primacy, though, is big prize money. If there was £10million for the winners, and £5million for the runners-up, TV broadcasters would not want to miss out however awkward the fit in their schedules. If there is one thing guaranteed to press the pleasure buttons of the viewing public, it is a big stake.

If that is the ideal, the logistics are not so simple. For one thing, such a system would only be feasible every four or five years (to give teams enough time to play each other home and away), a cycle the ICC feel would be too lengthy. And yet World Cups are played every four years, so there are precedents.

The other factor that appears to worry some people is the pitches that might be prepared for the knockout stages and final. Given that tosses are country neutral, and that both teams have to play on the same surface, this is a bit of a red herring. But, if it really is a concern, responsibility for pitches could be given to the ICC.

Failing all that, and in the expectation that September’s meeting of the ICC will opt for something fairly close to the status quo, a more sophisticated algorithm needs to be developed.

For instance, how is it possible that the Sri Lanka side of two years ago, which contained Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene, be given the same weighting in English conditions as the newly fledged one that did not have their services this year, and which England beat two-nil?

It can’t, which is why the rankings need to be tweaked to ensure more accurate placement of teams or, better still, replaced by a Test Championship with knockout stage and showpiece final.

This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday August 19 2016

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