SA ranking dip needs context

Sport24 columnist Antoinette Muller (File)
Sport24 columnist Antoinette Muller (File)

The ICC announced on Wednesday that Australia are back at the top of the Test rankings with South Africa falling to second. It’s hard to argue with those numbers on current form. 
In the last few months, Australia have hammered England and beaten South Africa in South Africa and with Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith gone, the Proteas will undoubtedly face a period of decline. England are in disarray and India hardly play Test cricket so to see Australia the top of the world is fair dinkum.

But the announcement of the rankings will come as a surprise to many. 

It was just a month ago where South Africa won a big cheque for being the No 1-ranked team in the world and had a steady lead at the top, despite having just lost 2-1 to Australia. They had the most points and neither side have played a Test since then, but the Aussies have been catapulted to the top.

Are you confused yet? Good, you should be!

The explanation for the change revolves around the table being updated and readjusted which gives more weight to recent results and makes older results less important.

“What?!” I hear you cry. Well, quite. To begrudge Australia their current to spot would be bordering on sour grapes, but the context behind the decision needs to be questioned.

The update means that, despite Australia being thumped 4-0 by India last year and losing the Ashes in England, their results of the last six months or so are far more important. South Africa, who lost just three Tests since August 2012 - compared to Australia's nine and England's seven – are punished for recent struggles. That might be fair, but it makes little sense to then make a big fuss over them being No 1 in a ceremoniously handover of a cheque.

Curiously, despite England barely coming third in the Ashes, they sit at third in the rankings. What makes it particularly strange is that since August 1, 2013 to now, England have played eight Tests and won just one, losing five. The updated table does state that results are of games between May 1, 2013 to May 1, 2014, but even in that context the calculations are strange and difficult to comprehend. South Africa played just seven Tests in that period, compared to 13 for Australia and 12 for England. This in itself surely presents a calculation curveball?

During the period from May 1, 2013 to May 1, 2014, South Africa played just seven Tests. Australia played 13 and England played 12. Even New Zealand, with nine, played more Tests than South Africa.

Their win/loss ratio was the same as England and Pakistan's with only New Zealand and Australia holding a superior W/L percentage. It is as obtuse as only cricket can be. Australia are certainly No 1 on current form after the summer they have had, but that could all change without them even facing a ball.

South Africa could go back to the top if they beat Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe. Australia would not have played a Test since then. It’s a muddled pool of frustration, but it has highlighted one very important point: Test cricket needs context.

While many will brush the relevance of rankings aside as it suits them, the fact is that they are important. They give prominence to Test cricket and illuminate achievements. This is particularly important for South Africa, a country who plays nearly half the number of Tests compared to Australia and England.  For South Africa to have remained at the top of the rankings since August 2012 despite having played just 17 Tests  - six fewer than Australia - is impressive.

A league system would completely change the face of the sport, but that would need equality across the board with all teams playing each other home and away equally. With the desire for money , power and the general disdain for smaller nations, it’s unlikely to happen.

The rankings system is important. It adds prestige to the most prestigious format and with the top spot comes a very tidy pay cheque. The rankings system in its current format, however, is on par with Duckworth-Lewis and does nothing to enhance the experience of fans.

Antoinette Muller is a freelance writer who writes mainly about soccer and cricket for The Daily Maverick or anybody else who will have her...

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.

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