Tuesday, 4 February 2014

There is no number one ODI team

India and Australia: contenders, but not top dogs
Look at the ODI rankings. At the moment, Australia are at the top, two points clear of India, and seven in front of South Africa. They’ve got there by smashing a demoralised England side and thanks to New Zealand dethroning the previous numero uno, India, who until their 4-0 defeat in New Zealand, looked like a genuine limited overs dynasty in the making.

That poses a problem. Australia are a good ODI team, but they haven’t smashed their way to the top, they’ve got there via, as Homer Simpson put it, “The two sweetest words in the English language, DE-fault.” Now being top by default doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be there, but the constant shilly-shallying of the top spot, passing itself around three or four teams, means that it’s hard to take seriously whoever has their turn with the baton this week.

There’s no era-defining one day team around at the moment, and that’s alright. When Australia won three world cups in a row they held the top spot in the ODI rankings for the best part of ten years, but as we go into the next event, despite it being held in the current number one’s backyard, it’s as open as it gets.

Australia could win it, sure, and if it were to be held tomorrow they would be installed as favourites, but anyone in the top eight of the rankings would feel they have a chance. South Africa are a great Test team, and if they ever get a coherent strategy for the one day group, they’ll be formidable. India have two great batsmen, as part of a batting unit that can make up for their mediocre to poor bowling.

England may be humiliated at the moment, but they were number one in this format not too long ago, and made the final of the Champions Trophy. You’d be a fool to count them out. New Zealand will be playing some of their matches at home and always seem to punch above their weight, Pakistan have a potentially brilliant bowling attack, Sri Lanka have classy batsmen and Lasith Malinga, and the West Indies have firepower and quick bowling.

Any of the top four have a good chance, and the other four are decent outside shots. It looks set to be a great World Cup, maybe only then, when one side comes out on top, we will have a number one ODI team… even if that isn’t then reflected in their ranking.

This disconnect also applies to the T20 rankings, Sri Lanka, losing World T20 finalists are top, India are second, and the last two World T20 winners are down in fifth and eighth respectively. Maybe too few games have been played to reach firm conclusions. India have played the least of the top eight with 19 in the rankings period, whilst Pakistan’s 40 is the most, but also fewer than the number of ODIs played by any top eight nation in the same period.

Does all this uncertainty call into question the worth of the ODI and T20 rankings? Without a World Test Championship anytime soon, the Test rankings are the best way to ascertain the relative strengths of the teams in that format, but in ODIs and T20s the best teams for any one time can be said to be the World Cup or World T20 holders.

Those tournaments are the only time in which the best available team is selected by every team. Whilst India value their ODI team highly, meaning full strength teams for all but the weakest of opponents, Australia and England have been duking it out in eight limited overs games with players rested hither and thither, and South Africa’s best ODI team is known only to those with a crystal ball. Constant weakened teams don’t make for meaningful contests, and by extension, rankings.

So, why do we keep the ODI and T20 rankings? Consistency. There are Test rankings, so there must be ODI and T20 ones. But are they needed? Perhaps only to make up groups for the World Cup.

South Africa are the best Test team in the world. That is a fact. You can deny it, but it doesn’t make it less true. It might change soon, but for the moment, it is true as it can be. But who are the best ODI or T20 team in the world? Nobody knows.

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