Number two

The churn in the Test rankings following Australia’s Ashes implosion is exercising a lot of minds lately. Anil Kumble, for instance, speaks of the possibility of India vaulting to the top of the rankings, and what it needs to get there [Item: play more Tests!]. Elsewhere, two informed voices speak of Sri Lanka and its gradual progress to the number two slot it currently occupies: SR Pathiravithana, and Suresh Menon. The former looks at the what-next question:

The former President was also elated by this development. He was also of the view that the present crew played good cricket, but the Lankans lagged a bit behind where the bench strength and the feeder points were concerned. He said: “We must delve into the reasons and make our bench strength strong enough to take up the challenges of present day cricket. But, we really are far behind where the feeder points are concerned. Punchihewa elaborated: “Even some prominent cricketers are of the view that Sri Lanka will keep discovering the Mendis and Dilshans on a regular basis, but that is too hypothetical.

Twenty five years ago Sri Lanka boasted of the best school cricket team in the world. But, today we are being beaten by even Bangladesh on a regular basis. I feel this is one of the biggest drawbacks that is ailing our cricket. Even to put a simple building, one must have a strong foundation to hold it up”.

Suresh Menon, meanwhile, puts his finger on the larger flaw: Lanka’s home and away record is lopsided. In the 2000s, which is being identified as the period when Lanka worked its way up the ladder, it has played 40 away Tests for a 13-18 win loss record; against that it has played 53 at home for a 31/11 win loss record. Narrow that down, and you find that in the three years starting September 2006, Lanka has 10 away games for a 4-4 record, and 14 home games for a 10/1 record. You could argue that this is not Lanka’s fault as much as it is the lopsided nature of the ICC-sanctioned international cricket calendar — but the fact remains that much of Lanka’s position at the number two spot in the Test hierarchy is built on success at home powered by its battery of three spinners, in a fashion reminiscent of India’s record when the spin troika was at its peak. From Suresh:

And now comes the difficult part. Breaking through to Number 1. South Africa are perched there as if by right, and a glance through the records shows that Sri Lanka have to work on their away record before they can be considered the best team both statistically and psychologically.

Of their 18 victories abroad, seven have come in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, six in Pakistan, two each in England and New Zealand and one in the West Indies. No wins in India, Australia, South Africa, although they have victories against all of them among their 42 at home. This is the lopsidedness that Sri Lanka will have to correct if they have to evolve from an exciting team capable of giving the big teams a run for their money into a well-rounded outfit which approach every game on at least level terms with the opposition. It is no compliment to be known as unbeatables at home if the flip side of that is “innocents abroad”. It took their neighbours India years to live down their image as tigers at home, lambs abroad.

In Sangakkara, Sri Lanka are fortunate to have as captain at this crucial juncture a man who is hard as nails and combines charm and toughness in rare measure. Both behind and in front of the stumps he is an inspirational figure, a Ranatunga without the rough edges, a Jayawardene without the gentleness.

Australia’s fall from grace would seem a great opportunity for Test cricket to acquire a greater degree of interest; an opportunity for the ICC to create a series of contests between the top four-five teams with the number one slot at stake, but the FTP suggests that is an opportunity largely missed. Short term, though, India has a chance to leapfrog Sri Lanka to the second spot when we host Sangakkara and his team for a three-Test series later this year. That should set up quite nicely the three-Test clash [a bit of a downer being this, too, is at home] against South Africa in 2010. Here’s Anil Kumble:

We need to play more Tests… If you look at the 12-month period from last August, Australia played 17 Tests, while India played 10… To get to No.1, you first need to play more. Then, obviously, you’ve got to do well consistently… Once we get to No.2, getting to No.1 will be taken care of.

Addendum: Here’s Harsha’s equally distinguished brother Srinivas Bhogle’s thoughts on the Sri Lanka as number two question:

So while Sri Lanka are winning practically everything — and that’s really the best that any team can do — they are deriving a significant benefit because of three things: (a) Sri Lanka play Test series with relatively fewer matches, (b) they have lately played a lot of cricket at home and (c) they have only encountered weak away opposition recently.

Let me explain the meaning of ‘recently’, because this is one of the merits of ICC’s ranking scheme. The essential idea is that wins in the recent past must get a greater weight than wins in the not-so-recent past. There’s no need to quibble about this; it seems to make good sense.

But how recent must ‘recent’ be? ICC takes it to mean one year (they also  have a curious fixation about the month of August, but we’ll let that pass), but, at least for Test cricket, one year seems insufficient — two years seems more reasonable, especially given the current reluctance to schedule too many Test matches.

I therefore believe (a) ICC should not give such a generous one-match bonus for Test series wins involving just 2 or 3 matches, (b) ICC should distinguish between the home-away results (it’s always easier to win at home), and, (c) ICC should not scale down the weight after just one year (two years is better).