Chetan Narula reflects on the changing of the guard at the top of the rankings.
Mathematically speaking, getting to the top of ICC Test rankings is quite easy. Unlike the ODI rankings where calculations are done after every match and winning a World Cup doesn’t take you straight to the top, Test rankings see computers in action only after every series has been decided.
Needless to say they factor in the previously played series between any two countries, and a better result in the present or in the future will erase the poor results from the past. And also, a lower ranked team will always earn more points if they beat a higher ranked team and the opposite isn’t so.
Therefore it is easy to understand how India became number one. They improved their results against all Test-playing nations, home and away, and being a lower ranked team earned them extra brownie points. It is an upward graph that England will identify with.
When Andrew Strauss took over charge for the second time, they were ranked fifth. Through consistently strong showing, they have moved up and quickly, so much so that a three-nil series lead is enough to take them from third to first. Having said that, it is in India’s shortened stay at the top and their inevitable downfall that the real learning must come through for the newly crowned Test champions.
India got to the peak and stayed there for near about two seasons through the sheer excellence of their batting line-up and Zaheer Khan. When these two factors didn’t click for them a first time, look how steep has been their fall from grace. The batting cannot last three days in two innings put together and the bowlers struggled early on to take twenty wickets, now even ten seem a mirage.
The blame game back home has already begun, and everyone from the Board to the selectors to the players as well as the IPL franchises, is under the scanner. Yes, they are all to blame, some more than others. Even so, a bloated Indian cricket calendar is today’s harsh reality and to say that is the real cause of concern is just looking past the actual truth.
No one is ever going to shut down the IPL. No Indian cricketer would want to miss the opportunity of playing in this league. They would still all want to play international cricket though and the selectors can only rest so many players for every tour.
The BCCI has a sport to manage and money is necessary for its ample running, yet they also need to find a balance with the international calendar. Asking the players to pick and choose, or stay fighting fit both physically and mentally are the only two options to choose from. In this melee, no one took on himself to make the tough decisions, to do what no one else did, not take the easier path. The balance so necessary to maintain a perfect squad was lost.
People compared this Indian team with Steve Waugh’s Australia and Clive Lloyd’s West Indies. Those times were different, their pressures were different, the fixtures list was smaller and demands on the players’ pockets were altogether less.
Times have changed and quickly. But it isn’t to say that those champion sides didn’t find a balance between their on-field and off-field antics. That they didn’t know what games to pick and choose; when to turn off and more importantly when to switch on?
They managed their playing careers and family time with aplomb and left behind a legacy that is the watchword for every cricket playing nation. Of course they also had a strong association and domestic structure to support their first team, something that is clearly amiss with the Indian set-up despite its Board being one of the strongest in the world.
It isn’t to say the ECB doesn’t have a presence in world cricket, yet the irony that played out in their rivals’ camp isn’t so obvious in their case. Even Cricket Australia is fast forwarding its domestic structure to lean more towards the Big Bash but the English are staying firm on their course.
Their county season is one that has been in place for quite some time and there aren’t many annual changes made to its affect, just so that extra money can be minted. What is the need to do that, one asks, when your summer of Test cricket has been sold out?
In turn, this allows the players to pursue their season with a sense of freedom, knowing full-well the workload their bodies are capable of taking, and that when an injury beckons, there is time enough for recuperation.
This last matter of injures also presents an alternate picture of bench strength. The stark contrast between India and England this summer has been the replacements that are ready to take their place in the first eleven, whenever the need arose.
When Zaheer Khan went out of the attack, panic set in and waves of turbulence reached the Indian shores. England meanwhile were calm when Chris Tremlett was ruled out or when Jonathan Trott injured his shoulder.
Tim Bresnan has done more than any Indian fan could have ever imagined while their batting needs no backing up.
Alternately, India are still searching for a solid opening pair and a number six who can play the short ball with ease, with just the last Test to be played.
Perhaps the matter for adequate fall-back options also puts a question mark on the ageing Indian superstars. No, it isn’t being implied that they should hang their boots as its time to look at the future. But definitely youngsters now need to be bled in every other series so that when their time does come, India doesn’t look this clueless on seam-friendly tracks ever again. How they cope with this aspect of their game is a last but most crucial lesson for England, who rest easy for the time being, with the crown firmly placed on their heads.
© Cricket World 2011