World Test Championship ranking system — missing the point for the points?

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The ICC’s formulated structure of points allocation is seriously lopsided, devalues Test match victories for irrational reasons, and could be prone to unsportsmanly exploitation by shrewd sides.

Gaming the system is all too possible when the system is constructed with unjustifiable imbalances. | AP

Test cricket is undoubtedly the most storied of the three cricketing formats, but one big complaint that many fans have repeated over the years is that there was no “context” and a “central narrative” to this glorious game. Thus, after much deliberation and many, many false starts, the ICC World Test Championship was born. Make no mistake, much of the folklore of Test cricket has been relayed from generation to generation in the form of heroic deeds carried out (mostly) in bilateral series, but results in an individual series hardly had any context outside of ts own. Now, with this system, there is something — a big, shiny trophy — to play for, for the top two teams in the league phase, culminating in a final at Lord’s. As an aside, this time around, if the final match were to result in a draw or a tie, both teams would be declared joint-winner.

All perfectly set up? More fans will buy into this new-fangled system? Not quite, I don’t think. I’m not convinced.

In a nutshell , the ICC World Test Championship is a league competition for Test cricket, with the top two teams advancing to a one-off (playoff) final to decide the winner. While this sounds good in theory, there are many flies in the ointment. Dig deeper by going to the ICC World Test Championship FAQ page, you’ll be left asking, “What the FAQ?”

Take, for instance, the points system. Throughout cricketing history, the lengths of Test series have ranged from 1 to 7 Test matches (let us ignore the number of days played in a match, for the time being); these could be because of market reasons, competitive reasons (Test cricket rarely sees upsets) and others. And, as Ravi Shastri was fond of reminding us ad nauseam during his days as commentator, all four results are possible in Test cricket: win, tie, draw, and loss.

No. of Tests in series


























The above table shows the number of points that the ICC allots for each of the four possible results depending on how many matches are to be played in the series. Looking at the ratios, the inspiration behind the scoring system becomes obvious — it is modelled on football’s 3-1-0 or “Three points for a win” formula. This system (which superseded the 2-1-0 system) encouraged more attacking play as both teams stood to gain two extra points by “going for the win”. An argument can be made that teams will be encouraged to “push for the result” here as well. For instance, in 2011, with this points system, it would be hard to imagine Dhoni’s India having played out a draw in Roseau; when systemic incentives are aligned this way, teams would be more encouraged to secure maximum points.

But then, is the above table really similar to the model followed in the footballing world? Take any top league in European football, for instance. Each team plays every other team twice, once at home and once away; in a 20-team league, each team plays 38 matches. Of course, fixture congestion and injuries can play a minor role, but this format is fairer compared to that of a knockout competition, in which upsets are more common. It is very rare that someone like the 2015-16 Leicester City team wins a league competition after 38 games — similar to the Test format. But herein lies the important difference — every one of the 38 games is equal, with an equal number of points on offer.

First of all, in the Test Championship, all teams don’t play each other in each cycle (India vs Pakistan is another matter altogether); but more importantly, in the above table, some Test matches are worth more than the others. Additionally, there is nothing in this system that factors in the difficulty of the opposition or home/away disparity (though, to be fair, neither does the 3-1-0 system in league football).

In the above system, the ‘unit’ of measure is not a game, but instead a Test series (with a 120 maximum points to play for). In a 2-match series, a Test win is worth 60 points, whereas the same Test win is worth far less in a longer series. So, a team could lose all 5 matches away to a strong team, and recoup all those points lost in a 2-match Test series at home against a weaker team. For instance, if the Indian team had won 3-1 away in Australia (it won 2-1) in the 4-match Test series it would have racked up only 90 points, but would amass 120 points just by winning 2-0 at home to Sri Lanka in a 2-match series. However, hardly any cricket fan or player would value the latter as the higher achievement in today’s cricketing context.

Therefore, bizarrely, this system rewards success in 2-match Test series much higher. If I were a team captain, I would be mighty worried if there were to be a chance of weather disrupting a win in a 2-match series; one rained-out session could cost my team 40 points (60-points-worth win might shrink to a 20-points-worth draw), and the team would have to work towards winning two Test matches from “draw positions” in a 4-match series (10 to 30) to make up for those lost points. The ICC could have easily mandated a standard Test match series format to prevent this from happening.

With such incentives, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine teams lining up “weaker” opposition at home to rack up the points and game the system. If you think I’m being paranoid, hear me out one last time.

The footballing counterparts of the ICC, FIFA, have a ranking system to rank national football teams. These have ramifications on how teams are slotted in multi-national tournaments (World Cup, Euro, etc.). In 2011, Wales were 117th on the rankings, but in four years, they were in the top-10. How? After their loss to the Netherlands, for over one-and-a-half years, they didn’t play a single non-competitive game that could have affected their ranking. They weren’t alone — Switzerland and Romania indulged in this as well, gaming the system to rise up the table and getting into more favourable pots and groups in the big tournaments, thus reducing their chances of encountering a “big team” in the group stage. Therefore, it wouldn’t be irrational to be wary of such a situation arising in the ICC Test Championship as well.

For all its faults, the pre-existing ICC rankings followed a much better system and could have been tweaked for this purpose; after all, it took into consideration the difficulty of opposition and number of matches, albeit it was much more difficult to understand. If the ICC was worried about the Rankings’ complexity, imagine the confusion that would arise when the dissonance between the Test Championship standings and ICC Test Rankings shows up because of the above factors. If you thought the Test format hard to explain to a newcomer, the day is not far off when you will have to explain why a Test team ranked at number 6 is at number 2 on the points table due to clever scheduling and optimisation and is playing the final. Therefore, it is just a matter of time before the novelty wears off and fans complain about this lopsided system which is at odds with how cricket has been played.

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