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Monday August 20 2012

Meanwhile, England are now trying not to lose in the final day of the series against South Africa at Lord’s.  They are now 41-3, “chasing” (i.e. not chasing) 346.

If England were to chase for real and to get those runs, they would draw the series and still be the top ranked test team.  If they lose this game, South Africa win this series 2-0 and go top of the rankings.  If England draw, South Africa win the series 1-0 and go top.  Yet, England are playing not to lose this game rather than to win it:

. . . . 1 . | . . . . . . | . . . . . . | . . . . . . | . . . . . 1 |

As soon as they announced it, I was very keen on the test match ranking system, even though I still don’t know how they do the sums.  I believed then, and believe still, that this system confers meaning on games that would otherwise mean far less.

But the trouble is, there is no one moment at which you must be top.  To win a World Cup, you have to win a particular tournament, and finally one particular game.  There can be no “building for the future” when you are playing in a World Cup Final.  This is it.  If this game at Lord’s were a World Cup Final, and the test rankings were being fixed now for the next, say, three years, England would go down swinging.  They would not be playing for a draw.

As it is, England are almost certainly now calculating that they would do better to surrender the top spot now, but in a way that enables them to get back to the top if they play their next few matches better, than try to keep the top spot now and probably thus fall further behind during the next few games.

It is even possible that their determination to draw rather than win this game is actually strengthened by the test ranking system.  “Win each series” gets replaced by “do as well as possible in each game but try nothing silly”.

If England were to draw this game, with Trott, Taylor and Bairstow (the remaining top order batters) all batting well, they would be well pleased.  That, for England, would be a result.

Not that that is now going to happen.  Taylor run out trying to get a fourth run.

3,W

Bloody hell.  45-4.  Are England still trying to win?

Enter Jonny B.

First the Surrey disintegration, following The Maynard Death.  Now this.  Crushed at the Oval, and now being crushed again at Lord’s.

How long will Strauss remain captain of this team, and thus a test match cricketer?  How hard will they try to sort out the Pietersen mess?  Hard, I hope.

But what’s this?

. 3 . . . 4 | 1 . . 4 4 . | . . . 4 . 4 | . 2 . . . . | 4 . . . 4 . |

England 79-4 now.  South Africa buying a wicket presumably, and having everyone in close catching positions.  Jonny B 20 in 15 balls.  Makes sense.

And oh look, incoming from Michael J:

If South Africa win (or even draw) this match, they will take the number one ranking off England. If Australia then beat South Africa in Australia in November (by any margin), Australia will take the number one raking off South Africa.

Judging by recent performances of South Africa and Australia, I don’t think this is extremely likely, but who knows? (Australia tend to play above themselves against South Africa). It is very possible that next year’s Ashes series could start with England holding the Ashes but Australia holding the number one spot.

All of which shows how successful the test ranking system is at keeping everyone interested.  Everyone who already is interested, that is to say.

I think England were always trying to win the match, right up to the end. They did not come all that close, really, but I don’t think they were not trying.

The ratings system does actually give a lot of weighting to the series result - probably more than the individual match result. (You will note that the Test ranking is only updated at the end of a series, whereas the One Day International ranking is updated after very match). England’s position today was that they would still have a significant lead in the test rankings had they held out for a draw, and it would be very hard work for Australia or South Africa to catch them before next summer, whereas lose the series (either 1-0 or 2-0) and it would be extremely hard for them to get the top ranking back at any time in that period. Probably they should hope for a 0-0 draw between Australia and South Africa, but I am not expecting that.

I think things are settled, in truth. England will not be number one going into next year’s Ashes series. (Whether it will be South Africa or Australia who are depends on results between now and then).  If they had won today, then probably they would have been.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 20 August 2012

Or to put it a different way, the rankings are designed so that England losing 2-0 was only a small amount worse than England losing 1-0, but that England losing 1-0 was much worse than the series being drawn 1-1. The people who have designed the ranking system have done a good job. This of course happened after the first system for calculating the rankings was absolutely terrible, and in which after Australia defeated South Africa 3-0 at home immediately followed by 2-0 away, South Africa moved up from the number two spot to number one. Realising that they were in danger of becoming a laughing stock, the ICC actually hired competent people to get it right the second time.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 20 August 2012

Strauss said after the game that he felt the added pressure of being number 1 contributed to England losing the series, in which case going into the Ashes at number 2 or 3 may not be such a bad thing. Having said that, I’m not sure I buy Strauss’s argument - I think South Africa were simply the better team in this series.

Posted by Darren on 21 August 2012

What for me sticks out about these South Africans is that the non-whites are now really, really making their presence felt.

Amla at the Oval.  Now Philander’s all round excellence in this game.

Plus, what a difference Kallis still makes.  They’ll miss him when he goes.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 21 August 2012

I am little reluctant to classify people in crude terms the way the apartheid regime did, but one is not seeing many black South Africans playing cricket at top level, alas. There was a hope at once point that they might want to emulate the West Indians and take to cricket, but that doesn’t seem to have happened much. What we have had is an increase in the number of people who would once have been classified as coloured or Indian playing cricket at the top level. Maybe this is because such people tend to come from Cape Town and Durban respectively and these were English rather than Afrikaan parts of South Africa (although I have probably just misdescribed the Western Cape). Maybe these groups always had an interest in cricket, but weren’t always allowed to play it at the top level, and that has now changed. Maybe these people are big beneficiaries in terms of access to once whites only schools and clubs and other facilities, and that is now coming through in the national team.

Another theory might be that at least some of this is another side effect of the rise of Indian cricket globally. The number of people of South Asian origins in the South African team is increasing. The number of people of South Asian origins in the West Indian team is increasing. There have been people of Indian origin playing for England from time to time for nearly a century, but I think there has been a recent rise there, too. (Also, what happened to the black Carribean people playing for England? They used to be quite prominent, but have now vanished). Significant levels of immigration to Australia from India is too recent for there to have been much impact there yet, but I am sure it will happen at some point in the next decade or two. (I have long been hoping for some Chinese-Australian or Vietnamese-Australian test cricket, but there hasn’t yet been much action there).

People of Indian origins everywhere are possibly getting more in touch with their Indian roots and modern Indian popular culture via Bollywood etc, and renewed interest in cricket is coming with it.

Posted by Michael Jennings on 22 August 2012
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