India February 21, 2010

Vive le rankings

For ages they only measured how far ahead Australia were, but now ordinary punters care about them

Did the Kolkata Test matter? Ask the gent with the beehive down his trousers © AFP

India are still top dogs. Yes they were at home, but home means expectations, nay demands, of victory, and the press after Nagpur left none in doubt about the retribution that would be dished out should Dhoni and Co fail to seal the deal in Kolkata. Three fluffed catches on the last day suggested sweaty palms and jittery fingers. But Test cricket demands patience, even when the margins are shrinking. Ten balls to go and things looked ominous. A few seconds later, they were cavorting in the outfield.

The Kolkata Test was a vindication, not just for MS Dhoni, but for the oft-derided ICC ranking system. It was once considered an ingenious but entirely superfluous statistical contrivance for measuring how much better Australia were than the rest. Sometimes it was 20 points. Sometimes it was 18. Jolly interesting and all that, but what’s the point? When your car is covered in cold white stuff, you don’t need to consult a meteorologist to find out it’s snowing.

Well ranking-sceptics should now recant. That list of numbers is not only a barometer of who’s good and who’s not, it has become a competition in itself. Thanks to the ICC spreadsheets, this match meant something; it wasn’t just one more stop on the bus route of reciprocal competition. The pre-match hype had everything except Don King. Newspapers competed for hyperbole. Would Bhajji have screamed like a lunatic and raced off towards the stands as though he had a beehive down his trousers if this had been just another game?

Best of all, Eden Gardens was full. For a Test match. It isn’t pink balls, floodlights or cheerleaders that the punters want. It’s context. Every Test, as far as possible, should mean something; it should be a small piece of a bigger picture. This doesn’t pollute or detract from Test cricket; it adds another delicious layer to the anticipation and the tension and helps marketing men sell it to newcomers without having to give it artificial injections of razzmatazz.

And non-cricket fans, strange folk though they are, deserve to experience the joy of Tests. This five-day stuff reaches parts that other formats cannot. It ebbs and flows, it has currents and undercurrents, and you can’t take your eyes off it. The slow siege of the South African second innings demanded attention, the fielders creeping closer and closer as Amla, exhibiting stony impassiveness, dead-batted and flicked the Indian spinners, reading every ball from the hand.

This series has also featured one of the game’s true artists at his best. Tendulkar, found out by a slightly loose drive in the first innings in Nagpur, avoided that tangle of technical adjustment and declining confidence that entraps so many batsmen when they can’t trust a favourite shot. In his second innings, he simply cut it out. Such self-imposed restrictions can bring out the best in an artist. Georges Perec wrote an entire novel without using the letter “e” and Tendulkar constructed a brilliant century without employing the drive. It is not facetious to mention them in the same sentence.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England