I am not a great fan of the International Cricket Council (ICC) Test rankings. Captains ranging from Kumara Sangakara to Graeme Smith and Andrew Strauss have voiced their displeasure, which shows that apprehensions about these rankings are widespread in the players’ community too. This is not a peculiar fixation of cricketers whose names begin with “S”; rather, a telling comment that the ranking system is perhaps complex and clumsy.
In the absence of anything else it passes muster, I suppose, but the ICC may have to come up with something more acceptable in the future. This is not as easy as determining, say, the world’s top ranked tennis or badminton player.
Also Read Ayaz Memon’s earlier articles
Team sports are imbued with a stronger subjective element, and unless the performances are so skewed as to establish superiority emphatically, there is ample scope to argue that the No. 1 ranked side may not be the best.
There have been several extremely good sides in the history of cricket, but by common consensus, only three reckoned as truly champion teams for a length of time. These came and went before the ICC rankings came into being: Don Bradman’s Invincibles (for performances in the decade leading up to the 1948 Ashes series), West Indies under Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards from 1976-1990, Australia under Allan Border through to Ricky Ponting (and including Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh), from 1991-2007.
What marked out these eras as different was consistency in performance and the ability to win at home and overseas frequently. For instance, the West Indies between 1963 and 1968 under Gary Sobers were hugely talented—the line-up included Conrad Hunte, Rohan Kanhai, Basil Butcher, Seymour Nurse, Deryck Murray, David Holford, Lance Gibbs, Wesley Hall and Charlie Griffith, apart from the world’s greatest all-rounder as captain—yet were not good enough, for one reason or another, to meet these parameters.
Pakistan in the late 1960s and 1970s were also flush with talent, but disappointed their supporters and the game with their on-off performances. A line-up that included Majid Khan, Sadiq Mohammed, Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad, Mushtaq Mohammad, Asif Iqbal, Imran Khan, Wasim Bari, Intikhab Alam and Asif Masood should have won more matches than it lost, but in fact, it was the other way around. Pakistan became a team good enough to hold the West Indies for successive drawn series in 1986 and 1988 under Imran Khan and a string of young players, which leads me to the conclusion that talent alone is not enough to make a champion side. Commitment and ambition are necessary prerequisites, and these can sometimes offset the value of mere talent.
But clearly no team can be No. 1 and the best for any length of time if it is not exceptional in the three areas that make up cricket: batting, bowling and fielding.
So are India the best cricket side in the business today because they are ranked No. 1? There are enough reasons to believe that they are: The points tally suggests this strongly, and even more credibly, there are successive series wins over England, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, with drawn rubbers against South Africa and Sri Lanka, over the past 20 months which have brought M.S. Dhoni’s fortunes to this wonderful situation. But it will worry Dhoni, as indeed it should the selectors, that there are some contraindications too about India’s supremacy.
Most of these victories have come in familiar conditions. Considering that India have played most of their matches at home in the past 18-20 months, that is not Dhoni’s or the team’s fault. But whether the team is equipped to win overseas as frequently is the moot question. The bowling has looked iffy in the past year when Zaheer Khan has been missing or Harbhajan Singh has been out of sorts, and the fielding has been piffle for a fairly long while.
Consider also the frequent changes made in the team. A hallmark of a champion side is that most, if not all, players remain together for a length of time: They complement and supplement each other in body, spirit and performance, which may have little or no bearing on statistics and averages. Where was the comparison between Viv Richards and Larry Gomes, for instance? But the West Indies team of the 1980s is unthinkable without either.
All things considered, India have to work hard to remain the best side in the world. The bowling remains the biggest worry, for a side needs to bowl the opposition out twice to win a match, and India’s bowling appears to be getting depleted with every passing series. Injuries, burnouts and loss of form and fitness have assumed serious proportions. At one point in time, three-four years ago, there was a plethora of fast bowlers to choose from. Now it’s a struggle to get two.
Spin has traditionally been India’s biggest strength, but no longer. Barring Harbhajan, who has been around for a decade and more, the others are rookies, unsure of their place in the next game. There is no genuine all-rounder around, which means that in match after match, India are playing with a rag and bobtail attack. The situation is worse where the fielding is concerned.
Not India’s strong suit, this seems to have gotten worse with every passing series, which means that whatever could help half-decent bowlers look good is also lacking: And as every cricket lover would know, half-decent is actually indecent. In the recently concluded series against Sri Lanka too, India dropped catches and gave away runs at crucial times and were pushed on to the back foot subsequently.
Batting is undoubtedly India’s strength. Rahul Dravid had a poor series by his high standards but is by no means finished. Gautam Gambhir spent more time on the sidelines because of ill health but will surely be back, and if Yuvraj Singh remains an enigma, Suresh Raina has shown that he is good enough to fill his boots.
Meanwhile, Sachin Tendulkar seems to be mocking Father Time with his virtuosity, Virender Sehwag’s buccaneering brilliance continues to turn the canons of orthodox technique upside down and V.V.S Laxman has shown that he is still Very Very Special. Add to these the versatile Dhoni, who can defend and attack as the situation demands, and the batting line-up assumes undoubted greatness.
In my opinion, this still constitutes the best batting in contemporary cricket, but that alone may not be good enough. The succession plan for several key batsmen, however, is obscure, and as I said before, the batting and bowling are cause for concern. There has been a discernible change in mindset in Indian cricket, but the need for a supply chain of high-quality players cannot be overstated.
For India to become No. 1 was an important landmark in cricket history, but to remain there, Dhoni’s team will have to be the best also. That should be the next big quest.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at