For those coming late on this story, India have been toppled from top position in the ICC’s Test rankings. Virat Kohli’s team has in fact fallen not one but two places to number 3. Australia are now top of the pops, as it were, rising from third place, with New Zealand retaining their second place.
The new rankings were released by ICC in the first week of May. But a lot many people I’ve spoken to were unaware of this development. “Why? How?” they’ve asked. With no cricket action in the wake of the COVID-19 related lockdown, it was unclear to them what could change the rankings.
This upheaval was unexpected. In the preceding few weeks since India’s tour of New Zealand, the rankings hadn’t changed. Despite the 0-2 defeat in the two Test series against the Black Caps, the rankings remained static through the second half of March and all of April. India were still No.1. In fact for 41 consecutive months!
So what triggered the change despite international cricket being comatose?
Fundamentally, it was because the ICC ‘updated’ its system on some parameters. First up was a new cut-off date from where the rankings would be calculated. This eliminated the period between 2016 and 2017 in which India had sparkled in the longest format, winning 12 Tests and losing only 1.
This stupendous run had provided a buffer for India in the next couple of years. Winning at home wasn’t a problem, but though overseas series’ in South Africa and England were lost in 2018, India’s top ranking remained unaffected. Beating Australia in Australia (2018-19) gave it a booster shot.
However, in the recent system update, the weightage of rating points assigned to Test matches between May 2017 and April 2019 was reduced by a whopping 50 percent. In this period, India’s win-loss record was 11-7. Not as impressive as in 2016-17, yet good enough to help retain the No.1 position.
Australia’s record in the same period was 9-7, which was somewhat better than India’s. But even till this time Kohli’s team was still clearly in the lead. The lead at the top, however, had diminished, creating a 3-way contest between India, Australia and New Zealand in the third phase that began after the 2019 ODI World Cup.
The third phase of the system update cost India the top spot, with Australia sneaking past. This phase began after the World Cup, and though both Australia and India had a similar win-loss record (7-2), where the Aussies eked out extra points is in not losing a series while India came a cropper against New Zealand.
The revised system of calculating the rankings hasn’t gone down too well with chief coach Ravi Shastri. “Seems funny that the rankings should change when there is no cricket being played,” he said only half-jokingly. The No.1 Test ranking has been a matter of pride for Shastri, and to see it taken away in this manner couldn’t have been amusing.
It is hardly like that the players or the BCCI administration would be happy either, although for different reasons. Kohli himself is ultra-competitive in such matters, and the top ranking has given him and his team an aura which he would be loathe to lose. The BCCI administration, of course, has been sparring with the ICC on several fronts.
But none of this is a solution to the problem, which is regaining the No.1 Test ranking. As things stand, only two points separate the three teams. Australia have 116 points, New Zealand 115 and India 114.
There might be some regret in the Indian think tank that they did not prioritise the Tests in New Zealand, putting more emphasis on the T20 series as preparation for the T20 World Championship.
Interestingly, India still head the points table for the World Championship of Test Cricket (360, to second placed Australia’s 296, followed by New Zealand with 180), but that’s because the parameters for both rankings are different.
The World Test Championship is now on a slippery slope because of the disruption in schedule and fixtures caused by COVID-19 and may even be scrapped for a later date, what with several teams like Pakistan, South Africa and Sri Lanka complaining that they may not get enough matches to remain in contention.
This makes the ICC Test rankings important again, and consequently, India’s tour of Australia this winter even more crucial for Kohli & Co. A win in this series would restore the No.1 ranking. But with Steve Smith and David Warner back in the side and Australia possessing a formidable bowling attack, repeating the 2018 win will not be easy.
To win back the top spot is incentive nonetheless. Knowing how strongly Kohli and Shastri always want to win, I’d be surprised if their competitive juices are not flowing already, and strategies being put in place for this tour already.
The writer is a senior journalist who has been writing on the sport for over 40 years.