October 16, 2007

The true world order

International cricket in 2007 is a bell curve, with a great big bulge in the middle. Inzamam-ul-Haq may have gone, but his silhouette lives on

Australia are clearly the best team in the world, despite being mediocre at Twenty20 © Getty Images

As anybody who has ever tossed a coin knows, the more times something happens, the more predictable it should become. But this rule is currently being blatantly broken by international cricket. It has become more relentless than ever - and more volatile. India pulled off a rare Test series win in England, then lost a one-day series they were expected to win, then won a world tournament for which they were quite unfancied. Australia lost to Zimbabwe. Pakistan, who had done so well in the Twenty20, promptly lost a home Test series to South Africa, who had covered themselves in the opposite of glory. England seemed a sure thing to lose in Sri Lanka, yet they won.

Of course these results didn't all come in the same form of the game. But something strange is happening, especially in the middle echelon of cricket. There are several teams so close that you can't squeeze a scorecard between them.

Look at the ICC Test Championship table:

ICC Test Championship
Ranking Team Points
1 Australia 141
2 England 111
3 India 107
4 Sri Lanka 107
5 South Africa 105
6 New Zealand 99
7 Pakistan 96
8 West Indies 72
9 Bangladesh 4

India and Sri Lanka are separated only by decimal points. South Africa are breathing right down the Sri Lankans' necks, and all these three are within striking distance of England. It's like an Olympic 10,000-metre race in which one runner is miles ahead and the next four are tripping over each other. New Zealand and Pakistan are practically attached to each other too. The range of points from second to seventh is just 15, half that from second to first.

The ODI Championship is much the same, only more so:

ICC ODI Championship
Ranking Team Points
1 Australia 131
2 South Africa 124
3 New Zealand 114
4 Sri Lanka 108
5 Pakistan 108
6 India 107
7 England 107
8 West Indies 102
9 Bangladesh 48
10 Ireland 28

Here, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India and England are all virtually level, with New Zealand and West Indies close by at either end of the clump. This means a great deal can hinge on a single match: when Sri Lanka beat England in the otherwise dead game on Saturday, they hung on in fourth place. If England had won, they would have been at No. 4, leaping from seventh. In the switch from Tests to ODIs, England and India do a near-swap with South Africa and New Zealand, while only Australia, Sri Lanka, West Indies and Bangladesh stay put. The idea that it's all the same game, and you should pick the same XI for different formats, makes even less sense in this light.

So which is the second-best team in the world, let alone fifth or sixth? One crude way to try and work it out is to amalgamate the two tables. I can already sense their creator, David Kendix, going pale at the prospect, but let's see what happens. For simplicity's sake, and in deference to those who still love the 50-over game, let's give them equal weight.

Combined Test and ODI table (by place)
Ranking Team Test rank ODI rank Total
1 Australia 1 1 2
2 South Africa 5 2 7
2 Sri Lanka 4 4 8
4 England 2 7 9
= India 3 6 9
= New Zealand 6 3 9
7 Pakistan 7 5 12
8 West Indies 8 8 16
9 Bangladesh 9 9 18

We're not much the wiser, owing to the strange symmetry of England and South Africa on one hand, and India and New Zealand on the other. And we still have five teams pretty much level - those four and Sri Lanka. So let's try using Mr Kendix's ratings points, hard as they are to fathom.

Combined Test and ODI table (by points), still giving both equal weight:
Ranking Team Test pts ODI pts Total
1 Australia 141 131 272
2 South Africa 105 124 229
3 England 111 107 218
4 Sri Lanka 107 108 215
5 India 107 107 214
6 New Zealand 99 114 213
7 Pakistan 96 108 204
8 West Indies 72 102 174
9 Bangladesh 4 48 52

The upshot is that the mid-table scrum has sorted itself out a little. There are no teams tied on the same spot, and only four teams are close together, not five - South Africa have pulled away, although they are still miles behind Australia, and Pakistan have faded.

We still need another divider. Step forward, Twenty20. The youngest form of the game has no official rankings yet, but Cricinfo helpfully supplies an all-time Twenty20 results table.

Twenty20 table
Ranking Team Win %
1 India 78
2 Pakistan 77
3 Sri Lanka 62
4 South Africa 60
5 Australia 54
6 New Zealand 50
7 Bangladesh 37
8 Zimbabwe 33
9 West Indies 30
10 England 27

Suddenly, the mid-table jam is toast. Instead, we have three pairs and a rather distant foursome - with England plummeting to 10th, possibly inducing a mass global gloat. Which may well be repeated when everyone sees where Australia are.

Now let's fold this into the combined table. With no Kendix ratings in Twenty20-land, we have to revert to places:

Test, ODI and Twenty20 combined (by place)
Ranking Team Test ODI Twenty20 Total
1 Australia 1 1 5 7
2 India 3 6 1 10
3 Sri Lanka 4 4 3 11
= South Africa 5 2 4 11
5 Pakistan 7 5 2 14
6 New Zealand 6 3 6 15
7 England 2 7 10 19
8 West Indies 8 8 9 25
8 Bangladesh 9 9 7 25

India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have gone up in the world. The mid-table jam has gone, but in its place are a trio (India, Sri Lanka and South Africa), a pair (Pakistan and New Zealand), and a straggler (England).

We can tentatively conclude that Australia are the best team in the world, despite being mediocre at Twenty20. India, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Pakistan, New Zealand and England really are much of a muchness. And West Indies (never higher than eighth in anything) and Bangladesh are the also-rans. International cricket in 2007 is a Bell curve, with a great big bulge in the middle. Inzamam-ul-Haq may have gone, but his silhouette lives on.

Tim de Lisle is the author of Young Wisden: A New Fan's Guide to Cricket, published by A&C Black and reviewed here. His website is www.timdelisle.com