The forthcoming series against Zimbabwe is also India's first engagement in the new ICC Test Championship (ICCTC) which promises to infuse a heightened sense of excitement into the Test playing calendar and impart higher stakes to any bilateral contact between nations apart from the plain series result. Played on a rolling basis, custody of the ICC Trophy, booty of the champion side, will rest with the leaders at any given moment.
Prior proposals had focused on a stand-alone event lasting a fixed duration but the present scheme ensures a continuous spread of interest by slotting every Test in the ICC calendar, under their new 10-year-plan, within the confines of the Championship. The ICC plan may affect the Asian Cricket Foundation's own intention to organise the second Asian Test Championship, which is outside the parameters of the ICCTC, later this year. The event has been scheduled between September 2001 and January 2002 in three different countries with the final in Dhaka.
Although the ICCTC only kicked off with the Pakistan-England series last week, results of all series dating back to the 1996/97 season have been incorporated into the current standings which the ICC announced in a media release on May 15. Australia, for long recognised as unofficial world champions, head the table and will be formally enshrined as champions before the start of the Ashes series in July. India currently lie a lowly seventh with only Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh trailing behind them.
Let's quickly run through the method by which India's ranking has been determined. Beginning with the 1996/97 home series against South Africa, India have played 12 series, winning four, losing five and drawing three. Results of one-off Tests are not recognised in the standings. Two points are awarded for a series victory and one for a draw, so India's tally settles at 11 points. Since some teams have played more often, the standings are determined not by the tally of points but by the average points gained per series. The West Indies and India both have an average of 0.92 but the Windies have won one series more than India, so they sneak ahead into sixth place.
Points from every subsequent home or away series will replace those earned in the previous home or away encounter between the two nations since 1996/97. So for example when India next visit Australia in December 2002 - according to the ICC's ten year plan - it will replace the 1999/2000 results. And when India host the Aussies in September 2004, the points accruing from both the 1997/98 and 2000/01 home series will be wiped off the slate. By 2005 every team would have played the nine others, both home and away, and a straight points system comes into place to rank the teams, instead of the average.
The format of awarding points for a series and not for individual Test matches has come under attack since it treats a 1-0 or 5-0 victory the same. A lack of conformity in the number of matches per series is the hitch that crops up. Traditional clashes like the Ashes are invariably played over five Tests but at the other end of the spectrum, newer entrants like Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe have never played more than three Tests to a series and have little prospect of doing so with the calendar becoming even more crowded. A quotient system where the points per Test are divided by the number of Tests in the series could solve the impasse. Ideally the number of points for a victory should be significantly greater than a draw and away wins need to be weighted more than home results; perhaps the ICC could still take heed.
A loss against Zimbabwe will not affect India's current seventh position while a draw can lift India ahead of the West Indies into sixth place. But a victory will help India leapfrog into a tie for positions 4-5 with Sri Lanka leaving the two teams to jockey for supremacy when they come head to head in the island nation in July. Although India have won a World Cup and a World Championship in the limited-overs game, they never quite showed the ambition to aspire for the title of world champion in Test cricket even in the days when it was strictly unofficial. The closest any Indian team ventured to acquiring such an aura was Ajit Wadekar's, which was cock-of-the-walk from 1971-74. Now that the Test calendar has been repackaged into the framework of a championship, perhaps their competitive juices will be primed up to flow with greater vigour. "Sometimes only a change of viewpoint is needed to convert a monotonous duty into an interesting opportunity", goes an old saying.