The race for number one

The merits of world rankings in team sports can be, and often are, the subject of fiery debate among aficionados, administrators and even the players themselves. Unlike individual sports, such as tennis and golf, there are too many elements of unpredictability within a team for a ranking to be undisputed.

If Tiger Woods is having a bad day with the driver he can change to a three-wood off the tee and still win. But in a team game it can take just one bad performance among an XI to bring the other 10 players down.
Unless there is enough depth to make up for that player.

If a goalkeeper has a bad day and concedes three, the outfield players must score four. They must play in wind, rain and scorching heat, on smooth fields and on muddy ones. When victory is not possible, they must avoid defeat. They must stay physically fit and emotionally committed, even when body and mind are threatening mutiny.

In boxing there are many world titles available, some with more merit than others, which is why the ultimate accolade for a fighter is the epithet that precedes his world champion title—“undisputed”. It is a rare achievement in individual sports, but even rarer and certainly more difficult to achieve in team sports. Now, for the first time in South Africa’s 120-year-old Test cricket history, that title is up for grabs: ‘Undisputed Test Champions of the World.”

And it’s not just about the ICC’s official rankings, worthy as they are. It’s about a team, which has risen to one challenge after another and answered question after question for very nearly 18 months. Now there is just one more challenge remaining—one more question. Can they beat the champions at home? Having knocked them to the canvas in front of a shocked audience in Australia, can they prevent Ricky Ponting’s desperate attempt to climb back to an upright position?

South Africa, you may or may not remember, has been ranked number one before. But the award was based on a technicality—Australia hadn’t played Zimbabwe and Bangladesh and therefore hadn’t collected their ‘free” points as South Africa had. At least Shaun Pollock had the good grace to acknowledge that Australia still had a ‘very good case” in claiming to be the best team when he accepted the ICC’s Test trophy at the beginning of 2003, right in the middle of consecutive home and away thrashings from Australia.

‘The number-one ranking means a lot to us. It means a lot to both teams,” said Graeme Smith this week. ‘I know Ricky is desperate to hang on to the ranking because Australia have deservedly owned it for a long period of time now, and if they win here they will probably deserve to keep it. At the same time, I don’t think anybody could argue that we wouldn’t deserve it if we win the series,” he said.

Smith and coach Mickey Arthur have succeeded in producing a curious fusion of two apparently opposite mantras—aim for the stars ... but take baby steps to get there.

Arthur puts no limits on his ambitions for the team: ‘I would like people to associate this team with greatness, just as they did with Australia for so long. When they want to know where cricket is heading, I want them to look at the direction we are going. Gaining the number-one ranking would be a fantastic reward for all the hard work this team has put in for a year and a half, but I’m already planning ways for us to get better, ways in which we can, hopefully, dominate the game and own the top position,” Arthur said.

If it sounds a little like the coach is getting ahead of himself and taking things for granted, he is aware of that danger.

‘If anybody thinks this team will be distracted by long-term goals, they are making a big mistake. If there has been a ‘secret’ to their success, apart from the very good cricket they have played, it has been their collective ability to focus on the immediate job at hand rather than what is around the next corner, or even the finish line much further down the road.

‘We would never have been able to chase 414 to win in Perth if that had been our focus from the start of the innings, and we would certainly have been intimidated if we had looked at the ‘big picture’ after two days of the MCG Test match when we trailed by 200 runs with just three wickets left. But a major key to success in Test cricket is to take baby steps towards your goal, not giant ones. This team has been very good at doing that,” Arthur said.

‘The important thing is that we are very calm and under no illusions about how hard you have to work to beat Australia,” Smith said.

‘But we have done it once and that breeds confidence. We have tasted the rewards for winning and we badly want to do it again. We have won in different conditions all over the world and have not lost for a year and a half.

‘Undisputed champions ... I like the sound of that. It’s a very big motivation,” Smith said.

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