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Not Number One Yet


You don't need to be an Einstein (not that he knew much about cricket) to know that the number one ranking flatters the effective, but not yet excellent, Indian Test team. It is an open-and-shut case really, and the arguments that support it are pretty straightforward. However, the hullabaloo generated by the typically light-headed media has brought forth a need to restate the obvious.

The reasons why India's elevation to the number 1 spot seems hollow are quite clear. India hasn't had a single noteworthy away series win (or even a draw) against the top three Test sides (Australia, South Africa and Sri Lanka), and has, in fact, failed to beat South Africa even at home. Awarding them the number 1 rank is akin to someone using a teleportation machine to beat Usain Bolt.

That Sri Lanka were next in line to take the honours, had India lost, also carries doubts that spring from the same family – they have hardly given the other top guns, including India, any creases on their brow when touring.

The sub-plot in this story, however, may lead to more insights than the lead argument itself. The current ranking system has been introduced by the ICC in 2003. A presentation made at the ICC's Centenary Conference in Oxford this July revealed that based on this ranking system, India would have topped the table thrice in the past - in 1973, 1981 and 1995 (when they were held joint leaders with Australia and West Indies), a fact that raises eyebrows or guffaws, depending on whether you heard it in an ICC Conference at Oxford or on a website that calls itself HoldingWilley. (Incidentally, without doing the homework needed to figure this out, the vacuous Indian media continues to state that India has reached the number one spot for the first time in 77 years).

The background to each of these years, particularly 1981 and 1995, is similar. India had several wins at home, but next to nothing abroad. 1981 was preceded by home wins against Packer-stricken Australian and West Indian sides. India being ranked number one in 1973 is a little more credible, but being given that tag in 1995 makes sense only if one is looking to use it as an example to explain the concept of sarcasm.

The fact that India can reach the number one spot four times in its history without ever defeating Australia or South Africa away (or even Sri Lanka, ever since they have been a half-decent side), and beating the West Indies only twice in the 39 year span in question, is enough to reveal an inherent flaw in the rankings system - it does not provide additional weightages to away wins. Rephrased, it does not penalize teams that do not win when playing out of their comfort zone.

Away wins are one of the most important benchmarks that a top-level team must reach, a fact acknowledged not just in cricket, but also in many other global sports such as football, with its away-goals ruling. Not accounting for it allows teams to win the battle by killing the foot-soldiers and the lieutenants but not the Generals.

This takes nothing away from India's steady and reasonably swift rise to the top bracket. There is no debating that they certainly have the potential to get to a pedestal where no such questions can be raised, and no rankings will be needed to give them their crown. However, the fact that a good, immediate opportunity for them to square some of these doubts away has been taken out (with the three Tests against South Africa at home in February being rescheduled, scandalously replacing this by an ODI series) points to another, larger problem - the rapidly dwindling number of Tests on the horizon. But that's another story for another time.

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