December 9, 2009

Scrap the Test rankings


Cometh the hour, cometh the agriculturist © AFP

So India are numero uno. Congrats to MS Dhoni and chums. A high five with a big foam hand to them. But large wet raspberries to the BBCI. Like a bank in possession of a painting that has has just gone up in value, the Board for Choking Cricket Indefinitely seems determined to lock its world-beating Test team away in their vault for the foreseeable. It’s not fair. We want to see ‘em. Please Mr Manohar, if we promise to write you some more cheques, will you let Sachin come out to play?

But no. As far as the BCCI goes, FTP stands for Failure To Play. Still, the fact that they can postpone a Test series with South Africa reminds us of the flexible nature of international cricket. Touring teams no longer take three weeks to arrive, having picked up a touch of scurvy and having played an awful lot of shuffleboard on the way. Test series can be scrubbed out or pencilled in overnight, entire tournaments are transplanted at a moment’s notice. And this got me thinking.

The time has come to scratch the ICC Test ranking system. It is nothing more than a fiendish attempt by statisticians to take over the game (and from there, perhaps the world). And we need not fall back on the opinions of studio-hopping, microphone-bothering former pros or the weight of internet forum anger to determine which is the best team in the world. Instead, we should take a lesson from the boxing world.

I have a vision. I am picturing a Test captain raising aloft a gleaming title belt, encrusted with jewels, signifying that his team are the undisputed Test Champions of the World. They would have to defend their title three times a year and all the other teams would fight amongst themselves for the right to get a shot at the champs. No elaborate tours programmes, no multiple divisions, no playoffs, and absolutely no algorithms.

We could go further. Let’s think about introducing enormous silk shorts instead of those tired old whites. What about a few catchy nicknames (Graeme “Strong On The Leg Side” Smith, Ricky “Rather Irascible” Ponting). Perhaps we could look into playing a Test under neon in Las Vegas. And we could also ditch a lot of those silly old laws and replace them with a pre-match chat from the umpire. Fifteen sessions, two falls or a knockout, no punching below the belt. Seconds out. Play.

Ahead of its time, perhaps. Meanwhile, those of us who like watching India play Test cricket will have to survive for a while on the memories of the last rites of the third Test in Mumbai. Sunday’s action occupied that curious netherworld that only a game that takes five days to play can produce, in which the result is known but takes rather a long time to arrive. It was a kind of sporting bureaucracy as the last “t” in defeat was crossed whilst the dignitaries and the podium erectors hovered.

However, it did give us one more look at Murali. Not the rather haunted-looking offspinner but the hearty striker of a cricket ball. When his rubber wrists finally seize up, I think that he should consider playing on as a tailender for the untainted joy that he brings to the cricket watcher. His dash of bravado on Sunday epitomised everything that is noble about the game, the last stand, the futile, yet heroic gesture.

At the fall of the eighth wicket, the camera focused on an Indian fan blowing a mighty conch and coloured head to navel in freshly gleaming saffron, white and green. The crowd were jubilant, Harbhajan was scenting blood and Zaheer was in full flight. Yet Murali strode jauntily into that arena and proceeded to bat with the vigour of the agricultural worker and the innocence of the child.

He has his own method. First there is the grimace of concentration as he takes up a stance that changes from ball to ball. Then a blur of foot movement: forward and back, side to side, quick-slow-quick, and finally the almighty thrash of the Murali blade. One was nicked off his nose, another sent spiralling over midwicket with a step-back and heave. All the subtleties of Zaheer and all the venom of Harbhajan were trumped in a gloriously pointless nine-ball dingdong.

It was good to see the old boy smiling again.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England