Test ranking: No.1 today, gone tomorrow?

There has been only a muted reaction to India’s return to No.1 on the ICC’s Test rankings, after victory over New Zealand in the second Test in Kolkata. There is, it is fair to say, a general lack of enthusiasm around the rankings themselves and nobody is particularly thrilled.

Indian team coach Anil Kumble, chief selector M. S. K. Prasad and selector Devang Gandhi in discussion. Now that India is number one again, what plans do these gentlemen have to help the country retain its ranking?   -  PTI

“You need to win for at least two years consecutively and that’s a true champion side,” says Javagal Srinath, the former pace ace. “Being the number one ranked side is one thing and being a champion side is another. You need to win all that you play over two-three years, ” he says.   -  THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Back in 2009, when India hammered Sri Lanka in Mumbai to rise to the top of the ICC’s Test rankings for the first time, there was much genuine celebration. This was something unprecedented and historic. To followers of Indian cricket, it was incredible that a side that had travelled so poorly in the nineties had turned things around and finally reached the mountaintop. It felt like a genuine triumph.

Those emotions stand in contrast to the slightly muted reaction to India’s return to No.1 on the ICC’s Test rankings, after victory over New Zealand in the second Test in Kolkata. There is, it is fair to say, a general lack of enthusiasm around the rankings themselves. India was on top for a week during its tour of the West Indies, before being dethroned by Pakistan. It is now number one again, after victory over an honest but hardly exhilarating New Zealand side. Nobody is particularly thrilled. India deserves credit but there is hardly the sense that something enormous has been accomplished.

Between May 2015 and now — a period whose results most affect India’s position on the table — Virat Kohli’s men have beaten Sri Lanka and West Indies away, thrashed South Africa at home, drawn with Bangladesh, and now swept New Zealand aside. In the two years before that, a period whose results get 50% weightage, India suffered four series losses — in South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia — and beat West Indies at home. India’s ascent to the top this time does not feel extraordinary.

The difference is this: back in 2009, being No.1 felt like being the best Test team in the world. It was the culmination of a journey that had begun a few years earlier. Starting from 2004, India won away series in Pakistan (for the first time), West Indies (for the first time since 1971 and after five series losses in a row), England (2007) and New Zealand (2008). There were great players — Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, V. V. S. Laxman, Anil Kumble, and Zaheer Khan — and that was a great team. India would remain on top for 21 months, long enough to rule out any dispute over its status as the world’s best. Between 2000 and 2010, India won as many Tests away from home as it lost (19), in stark contrast to the preceding decade, when the side had won one and lost 15.

 

There is an argument that to be truly regarded as the world’s finest, a team has to win Test series abroad, and do so consistently. Between June 2003, when the ICC rankings were first introduced, and August 2009, Australia would not be knocked off the top of the rankings. In fact, when the points system was applied retrospectively, Australia’s presence at No.1 stretched back to 2000. Between the first day of the new millennium and 1 April 2009, Australia won 30 of its 48 away Tests — a staggering achievement. In that golden age, Australia won series in England, New Zealand, West Indies, Sri Lanka (3-0), South Africa (twice!) and India.

But such teams, chock-full of match-winners, emerge once in several generations. After the decline of the Australian sides of that era, there has truly been no successor. Teams travel poorly these days. Excluding matches played in Bangladesh, West Indies and Zimbabwe for the purpose of this next discussion, in the last five years, only South Africa has won more Tests away from home than it has lost (won 5, lost 3). Over the same period, Australia’s away win-loss record reads 7-15, Sri Lanka’s 2-11, England’s 5-8, Pakistan’s 4-9 and India’s 3-12. It is not surprising that the No.1 ranking changes hands so often; there is simply no single dominant team.

“You need to win for at least two years consecutively and that’s a true champion side,” says Javagal Srinath. “Being the number one ranked side is one thing and being a champion side is another. You need to win all that you play over two-three years.”

The No.1 ranking, according to the former India fast bowler, is just confirmation that a team is doing a good job. “It’s an acknowledgement that there has been some consistency,” he says. “Reading too much into it or believing it’s a status symbol — I don’t know if it’s the right perspective.”

It is too early to pass judgement on Kohli’s team. Under his captaincy, India has won nine and lost two of its 16 Tests (the Indore Test is underway at the time of writing). India put up a fight in Australia and did well to overcome Sri Lanka in its own den (notwithstanding the lack of experience in the side). This is a young, relatively inexperienced Test side that deserves credit. Kohli and R. Ashwin are arguably the best in the world at what they do. Ravindra Jadeja is a handful on these pitches, K. L. Rahul is fast emerging as a solid, versatile batsman, and an injury-free Mohd. Shami will trouble any team in any conditions.

“They are playing better than any of the sides at the moment,” says Srinath. “At this point in time they are consistent. You need to give them their due for being number one.”

India may have never won series in Australia and South Africa, but for now the team can only tackle what is there on its schedule. And that is a heavy number of Test matches at home (10 after the New Zealand series and up to March 2017). If its home record in Tests over the last 10 years — only four losses, fewer than anyone else, and a W/L ratio of 6.75 (Australia is second with 4.625 and England third with 2.714) — is anything to go by, India will keep the ICC Test Championship mace in its possession till the summer at least.

It is to be noted, though, that Pakistan, whom India dethroned, has not played a Test at home since 2009 and that the neighbours have not faced each other in Test cricket since 2007. India, though, does not appear overly concerned with the rankings, and that is a good thing. “The No.1 rank doesn’t matter for us because it is temporary,” Kohli said in Kolkata. “A lot of competitive teams are playing and things could change after a series. If you get too attached to these things, then you get upset when you are not able to do it. It’s better to observe from far things that are not directly in our control.”