In every walk of life, but more tangibly in sport, it is easier – not easy, just easier – to get to the top than to stay there. On the path to the pinnacle, there are fewer targets on your back, fewer expectations than when you reach the zenith. Once you are there, you are in everyone’s sights. The entire chasing pack has but one ambition – to knock you off the perch, to supplant you from the exalted status of No 1.
Exactly a week back, India lost their top-dog status in the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) Test rankings. Having regained the No 1 slot in October 2016 after besting New Zealand at home in a three-Test series, Virat Kohli’s men assiduously protected that position for three and a half years until, in one of those wonderful sporting quirks, defeat at the hands of the same opponent in the land of the Kiwi in March all but formalised their descent.
After the annual update that the ICC carries out at the end of each April, Australia climbed to the No 1 spot, New Zealand were ranked No 2 and India slipped to No 3. That’s as far as rankings go. It is debatable, however, if Australia are the best Test team in the world at the moment. Or, if India were for those three and a half years when they ruled the Test stratosphere.
Sport, particularly, is a black-and-white endeavour with little scope for grey areas. There has to be a winner, which automatically means there will be a loser, however insensitive a word that might be. Such is the overwhelming demand for a winner that even when nothing separates two teams – like in last year’s World Cup final between England and New Zealand – bizarre playing conditions are invoked to end the stalemate. For any sportsperson/team, the No 1 ranking is the Holy Grail. And yet, being ranked No 1 only tells half the tale.
The somewhat complicated ranking system devised by David Kendix which the ICC has adopted has thrust Australia back to the summit, but the jury must be divided on whether Tim Paine’s is necessarily the best Test side currently. Agreed, that can sound absurd. What, for instance, defines ‘best’?
Perhaps, it is the aura. The air of intimidation, the sense of invincibility, the fear-factor one possesses and oozes. The ability to pull off the impossible from time to time, the propensity to dominate for the most part. The nonchalance to take variables out of the equation, the versatility to seamlessly adapt to demanding, unfamiliar conditions, the character that makes the whole much larger than considerable individual parts. Facets that typified Clive Lloyd’s West Indian wizards of the early 1980s, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh’s Australian warriors just before and just into the new millennium, Ricky Ponting’s superstars from early 2004 to mid-2009.
Those teams dominated cricket with an iron fist. Defeat was a seismic, earth-shattering event with the attendant rider that the backlash would be immediate and devastating. If you did beat them, you hoped it was in the dead rubber of a series already decided and that you wouldn’t run into them on a cricket field for a long time. For, if that wasn’t the case, even the victory celebrations would be tinged with apprehension; delight somewhat clouded by the prospect of what lay ahead.
Not since Ponting’s men ceded the No 1 ranking to South Africa in August 2009, has any one single team lorded over the Test stage. At the time, Australia had occupied the top position for a remarkable 74 months on the trot, a little over six years. The longest consecutive reign since then was India’s 43 months, which ended last week. The top ranking, occupied at various stages by five different teams, has changed hands 13 times between June 2003 and now; Australia have bossed the throne for the longest period cumulatively (83 months), Pakistan the shortest (2 months).
An interesting battle for bragging rights - for that’s what the No 1 ranking is about, apart from a substantial chunk of money, in the era of the World Test Championship – was just beginning to unfold when life came to a standstill following the coronavirus pandemic. In the 14 months preceding the end of cricketing activities, the top three current nations had all played each other once. India beat Australia, but lost to New Zealand. Australia recovered from defeat at the top of the year in their own backyard to India to overwhelm New Zealand towards the end of 2019, while the Kiwis bounced back a couple of months later to outclass India at home. In an increasing era of home dominance, India’s success in Australia was perhaps the most notable result, simply because it came on foreign soil. But that’s about as good as it gets.
India’s three-and-a-half-year reign was interesting rather than impressive. Their march to the top and their iron grip on that spot was facilitated by a string of outstanding performances at home in the 2016-17 season, in Anil Kumble’s only year as the head coach. After a series win in the Caribbean, which doesn’t quite have the same majestic ring these days, India stamped their authority against New Zealand, England, Bangladesh and Australia (who did pull off a stunner in the first Test on a dustbowl) to put some distance between themselves and the rest.
The carefully constructed home-driven edifice tottered a little in early 2018, dotted by away losses in South Africa and England. The former was a series Kohli’s band would have won with greater clarity in team selection. England was a hammering, the 4-1 scoreline every bit indicative of the gulf between the sides in English conditions, Kohli’s incandescence notwithstanding. India might have come away from England still holding on to their No. 1 ranking, but they were a long way away from being the best in the business.
Which should logically bring us to the next point of order. Which is the best team at present? Australia, and not just because they are No 1? The same Australia who, in the last two years, have been beaten by South Africa (away) and India (home), and failed to conquer England in the Ashes last summer though they did retain the urn after a 2-2 deadlock? Hmmmm.
Maybe there really is no best team as things stand now, annoyingly puerile as that might sound. Notwithstanding greater familiarity with overseas conditions, eras of one-team dominance as referenced above will most likely never be replicated. Instead, rankings will change hands more frequently than in the past, for such is the nature of the beast given the constant practice-play-travel routine which could become the norm again once we move past the Covid-19 uncertainty.
At the best of times, the term ‘best’ is subjective, nuanced as much by emotion as by reason; that subjectivity will merely ratchet up as cricket teams trade punches to win on technicalities rather than assume the mantle of the unified, undisputed champion. The sport, sadly, will be the poorer for it.
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