Against all odds, the Pakistani cricket team attained number one position in the ICC Test rankings recently. One can only agree with captain Misbah-ul-Haq that there is no greater feeling than to achieve this spot.
While Pakistan is ranked 9th in the ICC ODI rankings, it is deservingly ranked as the top team in Test cricket.
In fact, by one account, “no team has ever overcome more to become number one than Pakistan.”
However, we live in a time when there are a lot of good Test teams even if there is no team in particular that is well ahead of the pack. In the last five years, the number one ranking has changed hands six times.
Sri Lanka are currently ranked number six. In August this year, they annihilated Australia, who were number one at the time, clean sweeping them 3-0. Angelo Mathews’s young side, believed to be in its rebuilding stage, leaped South Africa in the rankings after that win, albeit for a short while only.
At the start of the year, South Africa were ranked number one in the world. Pakistan has not won a series against South Africa since 2003 and the last time Pakistan visited South Africa in 2013, they were thrashed 3-0. Yet, today, Pakistan is world number one and South Africa are at five. The Proteas were ranked 7th, before Dale Steyn’s brilliance against New Zealand during the series in August moved them up two places to 5th, above Sri Lanka.
Last month, there was a realistic chance for Australia, India, England, and Pakistan to secure the top spot.
But only Pakistan managed to succeed.
After Australia lost to Sri Lanka in Colombo in August, India were momentarily number one. The Indians had the chance to solidify their position during their tour of the West Indies, but they were unable to do so. The West Indian team had been extremely good hosts. They had already lost the first two Tests within four days and the possibility of them surrendering the third Test was considerably high. Unfortunately, India’s battle was lost in the skies and the final Test was cancelled due to weather.
Five days later, Pakistan dethroned their archrivals to go number one.
When ‘politely inquired’ if Pakistan were a better team than England, both George Dobell and Jarrod Kimber gave an apt reply, saying that it was not so much about the ranking as it was about how teams performed against each other one-on-one.
The ICC Test ranking system puts weightage on teams winning against higher-ranked oppositions. The quality of your opponent is always a good measure of the value of your triumph. It also makes it extremely competitive and difficult to stay on top.
Oddly though, the ICC rankings give no special significance to games played home or abroad. A win or a loss at home is the same as a win or a loss abroad.
Since the present ranking system changes as soon as a Test series is over, those who play more home games within that time period are in an advantageous position.
A schedule that equally distributes bilateral series would cancel out the home and away advantage. But this remains a theory at best.
India play 13 Test matches at home this coming season. Given their dominance at home, they are almost certain to become the number one team at some point during the next six months. The next Test series India is scheduled to play outside the subcontinent is in 2018.
Pakistan play the West Indies next, ranked eighth, in the UAE, before going to New Zealand and Australia. Pakistan is likely to lose their number one spot because of the difficult away matches.
The current Future Tour Program shows Pakistan and India clashing in winter next year in a series scheduled in India.
However, earlier this year, the Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board Najam Sethi said that India owes Pakistan four home Test series, either in the UAE, Sri Lanka or at another location. According to Sethi, India is under contractual obligation to do so.
The Indian cricket board has repeatedly made commitments but has opted out of playing a bilateral series against Pakistan. Last time India and Pakistan played a Test match was in 2007.
Out of the 11 Indian players that took the field against the West Indies at the Port of Spain, only Ishant Sharma has played against Pakistan. The rest of the Indian team does not have first-hand experience of one of cricket’s most ferocious rivalries.
Team Misbah has crushed Australia and demolished England in the UAE, but the number one team in the world has yet to face India, who are ranked number two. In fact, Pakistan’s most successful Test captain has never lead his team against India.
Yasir Shah and Ravichandran Ashwin are the two best spinners in the world, but they have never been tested against the best players of spin.
The likes of Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane have not yet felt the heat of a five-day contest against Pakistan or had the opportunity and pleasure to conquer India’s cricketing enemy number one.
An entire generation of some of the finest cricketers are going through their careers without facing their fiercest foes.
The sport of cricket is poorer without it.
Imagine if Shane Warne had never played the Ashes.
Pakistan has swapped the number one rank with India, and India is likely to topple Pakistan soon. They have done so without actually playing each other in almost a decade.
To truly be able to say whether India or Pakistan are the better Test team, they would have to play each other and battle it out on the field.
It is for the first time in Test history that Pakistan and India occupy the top two spots.
And the need for a contest between the two has never been so dire.
Without it, the rankings – and indeed Test cricket – are incomplete.
How long can politics and people in power rob the game of its greatest battle?