If a thirsty man only has stagnant water to drink, he will drink. And if fans of Test cricket only have the International Cricket Council’s world rankings to provide an official measurement of their team’s progress and standing, then they will have to do.
A world championship with a little bit of structure and organisation would have been better — maybe even a rough attempt for the 10 nations to play at home and away in a given time frame. But that would have required an ability to look ahead and see the game’s landscape in a decade’s time; it would have required a sense of purpose and common ground among the member nations. Instead, it was scuppered by India’s narcissistic addiction to money and power.
So we’ll have to make do with the rankings and the haphazard number of games and series played in a random time frame, which provides the basis for the rankings.
The way results have unfolded in recent months means that South Africa’s tour to England in six months’ time could be the third occasion in the past three years (all against different opposition) that the Proteas will contest a series for the unofficial title of world Test champions.
When they beat Australia in Perth and Melbourne, they briefly rose to the top of the ladder but tumbled quickly and meekly down again.
India also suffered a vertigo moment after reaching the summit of Test cricket for the first time since the rankings were created and are currently in freefall after back-to-back 4-0 whitewashes in England and Australia.
For a while, the rest of the cricket-playing world had reason to rejoice at India’s success. Suddenly the income-obsessed Board of Control for Cricket in India could see that Test cricket really did have kudos and that being the best at the best form of the game gave them a real reason to puff their chests out.
But now the party is over and the familiar sense of indifferent arrogance is wafting out of India. It is all bling and Indian Premier League again. Indian cricket bosses do denial brilliantly. Sachin will never retire. Ever.
Literally moments after South Africa’s rise to the top three years ago, Graeme Smith made the prophetic statement: “Getting to the top was the easy part. Staying there will be the true test.” His team failed.
Now it is England’s turn to wobble at the top. Losing the first of three Tests to Pakistan in Dubai a fortnight ago gave a usually harsh and unsympathetic media a rare opportunity to dust-off their list of excuses, none of which featured “incompetence”. The second defeat that cost them the series in Abu Dhabi, however, saw England’s frailties ruthlessly exposed on grass as well as in print.
The Proteas, too, face a potential upset in just a month’s time when the three-Test series against New Zealand gets underway. It is not just a question of the playing resources available to both sides or the type of pitches they will play on. It is also the air temperature — which dropped to a wind-chill assisted 2°C on the morning of an ODI in Dunedin on South Africa’s last tour there in 2004.
There is also the very considerable fact that the Super Rugby season will have started. Only those with previous experience of just how second-class cricket is to rugby in New Zealand will not be shocked by how irrelevant the game is while rugby is in town.
“We literally had not left the playing area after our Test match at Eden Park when the ground staff drove on to the field with the rugby poles and started marking out the touchlines,” Gary Kirsten recalled from the 2004 tour. “It brought everything into perspective for us.
“About an hour later, we all went back out on to the field with a couple of rugby balls and kicked penalties. Everyone on that tour could proudly say they’d kicked a three-pointer at Eden Park,” Kirsten said laughing.
The Test team is settled at the moment and should have more than enough skill and experience to prevail. But the T20 and ODI teams are very much a work in progress and success against a home side that specialises in the shorter formats is far from guaranteed.
Kirsten is wise enough not to say so publicly but he is prepared to lose games in the short term to find the best players for success in the long term.
He does not believe in experimentation after a series has been won, which is why he asked for Jacques Kallis and Dale Steyn to be rested before the recent series against Sri Lanka had been clinched. Both men are almost certain to feature in September’s T20 World Cup but neither will play in the three games in New Zealand.
“You can’t really find out how somebody reacts under pressure in a ‘dead game’,” he said. “Only when the result of the series is still at stake can you see how they react and what decisions they take.”
But it is the Test series that rightly will attract most attention. Win it and they will have another crack at the heavyweight title of the world.
Then it would come down to retaining it. Again.