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    5 March, 2002  

    -- Saurabh Wahi

    You are not the world's fastest man till you breast the tape.
    It has been nearly one year since the International Cricket Council introduced the 'ICC Test Championship'. The intention, to quote the ICC, was to add interest, context and excitement to the game at the highest level. The Championship runs on a rolling league basis, with the position of a team calculated based on the results of the most recent series (a minimum of two Test series applies), home and away, between each of the teams. The system is based on the co-ordinated 10-year calendar of future tours adopted by all ICC members in February 2001.

    I am sure that even the strongest critics of the ICC cannot fault them on their intention for introducing the Test Championship and the 10-year schedule to go along with it. This, along with the positive cricket played by the Australians, has been a much-needed shot in the arm for Test cricket, and has helped generate a level of interest in the longer version of the game not witnessed for a long time.

    However, of late there has been a growing skepticism about the system especially with respect to parameters used to rate the teams, and determine the 'Champion'. This is evident from the fact that, in-spite of winning the home series by a convincing margin of 3-0, Australia can still be dethroned as the 'Champions' by South Africa even if they draw the current series.

    If this were to happen, I wonder how many people will truly believe that South Africa is better then Australia, and indeed worthy of the 'Test Championship' mantle. However, the Australians can take solace from the fact that in the (unlikely) event of that happening, they can regain the 'Test Championship' by defeating Zimbabwe in April. That would leave South Africa holding the title of a 'Champion' for probably the shortest period in recent sporting history.

    Though there has been no direct criticism of the ICC, there is enough indication, going by recent actions and remarks by officials and player, to suggest that the system does need to be reviewed. The strongest indication of which, ironically, comes from the ICC itself. One of the responsibilities of the recently appointed General Manager - Cricket, former South African wicket keeper, Dave Richardson, is to look into this system, and see how it can be improved. Last month, Waqar Younis, the Pakistani Captain, had expressed his dissatisfaction and was at a loss to understand how the West Indies, having lost all their recent series (by huge margins), was ranked higher then Pakistan who, interestingly have not played much test cricket in recent months.

    Now, are people skeptical about the system because they think it is too complicated? I guess not. If anything, the system can only be accused of being too simple. It is based on the simple win-loss result of a test series, with two points allocated for winning a series and one for a drawn rubber. It does not take into account other somewhat complex factors such as margin of victory, strength of opposition, individual test results and home-advantage to determine the "Champion". In that case, could the skepticism be stemming from the fact that that the system takes into account results from past series, even though they may be from many years ago, gives teams such as the West Indies an advantage.

    In my personal opinion, the biggest flaw in the system is its ambiguity. It is not clear whether it is a method to rate the best team in the world or that it is a way to determine the champion. The system seems to be a hybrid between a championship and a rating system, and therein lies its biggest problem. An analysis of the system would be better served by comparing it with other sports. Sporting Championships and Rating systems

    Most international sports played around the world have a clear distinction between a rating and a championship. Each of these has its significance, but the methods adopted to determine the champion and to rate a team (or player) are different. Hence, at any given point in time, you could have a champion who may not be the highest rated team (or player).

    Sporting championships are usually decided by an "easy to follow" system based on simple match results of games played over a set period of time. No other factors are taken into consideration when determining a champion. Once two teams (or players) take on an arena in an international sport as part of any championship, playing conditions, home advantage, past history, etc. do not come into play. Neither does strength of opposition, as it would tantamount to a handicap given to the weaker teams, and the better teams would be at an unfair disadvantage, because of their own success.

    Hence France, the winner of the 1998 football world-cup at home, is no less a champion then Argentina, winner in 1986. Or Becker winning the Wimbledon title five sets in no less a champion then Pete Sampras winning the same in three.

    On the other hand, a rating system is usually more complex and may be based on a system that incorporates some (and more) of the above-mentioned parameters. Not many people understand the rating system, but acknowledge it as a method to determine the world's best team (or player) at any given time.

    Interestingly, before the start of last year's home series against South Africa, Steve Waugh went on record and stated that even if Australia were to lose the series (and hence the championship) to South Africa, he would still consider the Australians to be the best test team in the world. Steve Waugh's statement is not entirely misplaced, and not many would disagree with him. However, by making that statement, he seemed to imply that he was not entirely convinced that this hybrid system of rating teams and determining the 'Champion' is perfect. Besides, his statement gives one the impression that as long as Australia is considered to be the best team in the world, the 'ICC Test Championship' title did not matter. I am sure he has a different opinion about the 1999 One-Day world Champions title that Australia currently holds.

    The reason for this is simple: it is the ultimate sporting dream for any sportsman to hold the 'Cup', and be crowned the 'Champion of the World'. This sense of achievement is entirely missing from the ICC Test Championship. Australia takes on South Africa, in what is being billed as the world-championship title clash, without it really being so. The Australian team, and their fans are aware that even if Australia do lose the series, they could regain the championship almost immediately by defeating Zimbabwe, thus reducing the so-called title clash to nothing more then media hype!

    Championships are decided by the results of the games played as part of a tournament like the Football/Cricket (One Day) World Cups or the Grand slams in Tennis. Or decided based on the results of matches played over an extended period of time, like the English Football Premiership.

    Whatever the playing format, the important aspect is that, unlike in a rating, the championship title is not perpetual and ever changing. It is cyclic and is decided by results of games played over a finite period of time, with the title being awarded at the culmination of that period. More importantly, the title of a champion stays with the current champion till the end of the next championship, and so on.

    In 1983, when India won the one-day world cup, it did not matter that they were not the best team in the world. It also didn't matter that the West Indies thrashed India 6-0 immediately after the World-cup in a one-day series. The bottom line was that India won the world-cup finals to be crowned the world champions, and remained so till they were dethroned in the next world-cup. On the same note, I am sure Ivan Lendl would have gladly traded his ATP rating for a Wimbledon title. Or Brazil the FIFA world rating in exchange for the 1998 world Cup.

    I am not suggesting that every championship must culminate with a 'Finals'. Good examples of championships that are not decided by Finals, but solely on the results of games played over an extended period of time, are the English Premiership and the English Cricket County. Agreed, they both lack the excitement of a Final, but the high level of interest in each and every game compensates for this.

    The winner is decided on the basis of number of games won/lost/drawn during the course of the entire season, thus making each game important. And as the championship draws to an end, there is a do-or-die situation for the teams, as they are aware that if they do not finish on the top, they do not get another shot at the championship till the next season. And a relegation system insures that teams in the bottom do not take their games lightly, hence avoiding 'dead' games.

    I hope I have been able get my point across to highlight the flaw with the ICC's 'Test Championship'. This is not meant to be a critique of the ICC, as I am sure the ICC was faced with an uphill task in introducing some kind of a 'Test Championship', and regulate the way Test series are scheduled. The point is; could they have done better?

    Next: Is ICC's system a Rating or a Championship? Is it both, or neither? The author analyzes some of the inherent flaws in ICC's current system, and in subsequent articles, proposes a fresh, new approach to the issue of test match schedules and the ratings process. Stay Tuned.

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    Illustration: Uttam Ghosh

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