Cricket: Which country is the best at Test cricket?

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Claims to global supremacy are as old as the game itself. Once Australia seemed pre-eminent, then the West Indies. Have England ever been in with a shout? There has never been an official answer. With the Ashes series about to start, Rob Steen celebrates the sport's glorious uncertainties and introduces the Independent Table of Test Cricket, a proposed remedy for the problem.

TAKING place as it did just a few weeks after the Titanic went down, the omens for the only official world championship of Test cricket in the sport's history were hardly propitious. Then again, the organisers did make the fatal mistake of staging the event in England.

Under the banner of the 'Triangular Tournament', Australia, South Africa and the hosts, the only members of the Test circuit at the time, played each other three times apiece between 27 May and 22 August. Nearly half the eight three-day contests, needless to add, were ruined by the weather.

Still, there was no shortage of immortals on view in that summer of 1912. Jack Hobbs opened for England behind The Oval gates that would later bear his name; the peerless SF Barnes bowled unchanged throughout both South African innings at Kennington, taking 13 for 57 all told; Major George Aubrey Faulkner, the finest all-rounder of the day, scored South Africa's only century. George V, meanwhile, became the first reigning monarch to attend a Test when he took his entourage to Lord's for the Australia v South Africa game.

It was a comparative unknown, however, who stole the show. Jimmy Matthews, a skinny Victorian misleadingly billed as a leg-spinner, rang up the curtain in the opening match at Old Trafford by becoming the first - and so far only - bowler to take a hat-trick in each innings of a Test. Evidently a master of deception, he was said to deliver 'straight breaks'.

A number of stars were missing, Australia being crippled by the absence of Victor Trumper, Warwick Armstrong, Sammy Carter, Tibby Cotter, Clem Hill and Vernon Ransford, who fell out with the Australian board over the choice of manager and refused to tour. Hill, moreover, had been at loggerheads with his fellow selectors, venting his frustration by instigating a brawl at the offices of the New South Wales Cricket Association and almost pushing one of them, Peter McAlister, out of a window.

Happily, the final - in all but name - between CB Fry's Poms and Syd Gregory's Aussies was a rather less frenetic affair. Intended as the first 'timeless' Test in England, it finished on the fourth day when Frank Woolley spun the hosts home by 244 runs. Although a table was published - England topping it with four wins and two draws to Australia's two wins, one defeat and three draws - no points were awarded.

Cricket administrators being even more sedate than the game itself, it should come as no surprise to learn that it has taken another eight decades for any influential voice to propose another method of establishing the best side in the game. In his recently published book The Cutting Edge, the former Australian captain, Ian Chappell, envisages a Test league whereby each country would play series against the other, home and away, over a four-year period, with points being awarded for wins and, to a far lesser extent, draws.

This, he concludes, would culminate in a play-off between the two leading sides, one three-Test rubber at home, one away. As indicated elsewhere on this page, however, the hurdles are such that the Chappell model stands little chance at present of leaping from print to life.

As a consequence, bar-room disputes over past performers - would FS Jackson's England side of 1902 have put one over Len Hutton's Ashes heroes of 1954-55, and so on - have been rendered all the livelier by the fact that there has never been any quantifiable basis from which to make such assertions. Although the evolution of the game renders comparison of teams from different eras no more than a fascinating exercise in futility, it is widely accepted that the Australians who invaded England in 1948 vie with the West Indies XIs of 1984-86 as the creme de la creme.

On the other hand, by tracing Test results down the years it is possible to devise a decade-by-decade roll of honour. Starting with the 1930s, the first decade to feature at least five competing nations, Australia were pre-eminent, winning more than twice as many Tests as they lost. Given the weighty assistance of Don Bradman and Bill O'Reilly, in many eyes the best batsman and finest bowler of all, it is a wonder England consented to scrap Bodyline so soon.

Discounting the 1940s on the grounds that more than half the decade was lost to the Second World War, the picture gets muddier in the 1950s. Australia, inspired by Lindwall, Miller, Harvey and Benaud, had the best win-loss ratio in terms of individual Tests; England, spurred on by Hutton, May, Compton and Laker, the best as regards series. The same applies to the 1960s, wherein Dexter, Cowdrey, Trueman and Statham helped England win 29 and lose 15 (out of their 97 Tests) for a 1.93 ratio (of wins to losses), while Lawry, Walters, Davidson and McKenzie gave Australia a 3.5 series ratio.

The 1970s and 1980s were far more clear-cut. Lillee, Thomson and the Chappells directed Australia to the head of both categories during the Packer era, Lloyd, Richards, Holding and Marshall doing likewise for the West Indies in the helmet era. Indeed, the superiority of the Caribbean collective was so pronounced that their win-loss ratio in each category was the best over the five decades in question, with 5 1/2 Tests and 14 series being won for every reversal. Whether that says more for their skill or the opposition's shortcomings is debatable, but the gap, certainly, has never been greater.

Not surprisingly, there is little official concern at the continued absence of any ultimate test of prowess in the highest form of the game. After all, the mounting profits engendered by the limited-overs snack, compounded by declining worldwide sales for the full five-course meal, render a bonafide World Cup about as commercially viable as the Merv Hughes Guide To Closer Shaving.

How we calculated the rankings for a world league

Points are calculated as follows: The table includes all matches over a four-year period dating back to 1 January 1990. Teams get 50 points for a home victory, 20 for a home draw and 0 for a home defeat. From the home points total a home average is calculated. Teams get 100 points for an away victory, 40 for an away draw and 0 for an away defeat. From the away points total an away average is calculated. Bonus points (BP) are awarded for series victories, with five points for each home series victory within the period and 10 points for each away series victory. The total consists of the home average plus the away average plus the bonus points.

Series must consist of at least two games. Drawn matches in which more than a third of the playing hours are washed out (10 or more hours or five or more sessions) are not counted

THE West Indies are the best Test- playing country in the world, better than Australia and Pakistan, and as for England, they do not come close, do they?

Since 1876, when James Lillywhite first led England into a Test match against Australia, the argument has raged. But the challenge of establishing a basis for naming 'the best' is fraught with problems intrinsic to the complex organisation of an international sport that has now blossomed to involve nine nations.

The main difficulty is posed by the traditional imbalance of the fixture list. England, to take the most extreme example, meet Australia every two years on average, home and away. Pakistan, conversely, have not entertained England since the ill-fated tour of 1987-88.

Anomalies abound. Next winter the West Indies will finally play Sri Lanka, for the first time since the latter were granted membership of the Test club in 1982. England have scarcely been more encouraging, taking on Sri Lanka in five one-off games. Until England arrived last winter, India had been unable to afford to play host to a touring Test team for more than four years. Profit- conscious home boards only invite tourists over if the sums add up and the opponents are attractive enough.

For the purposes of compiling the Independent Table of Test Cricket, we propose to consider matches played over a four-year cycle. This is the period of time used for most major sporting titles and makes equal sense for cricket.

The problems come with defining what is a four-year cycle. Because there is no fixed season for Test cricket the question of what is and is not included could become fiendishly complicated. Our suggestion is that the table operates on a rolling cycle of completed calendar years. For the purposes of the table Tests are only included if they are part of a series which is completed within the calendar year which is to be included.

The present table includes all Test series played since the beginning of 1990. It would have included Tests that were part of series that spanned the 1989-90 new year had there been any (in fact there were none).

Since February 1990, England have played home and away Tests against all but one of the countries who were on the circuit at the outset of the decade, only the fall-out from Faisalabad preventing them from completing the set.

The current table will be updated throughout the year, until the final Test is played in the last series which ends within the calendar year of 1993. The team on top of the table at that stage is then declared the Independent Table of Test cricket champions for 1993.

Once we go into 1994 all the results for 1990 are ignored, a new table is drawn up, and the results from the 1994 Test series added. At the end of 1994 that year's champions are declared. Such a system seems to us to strike a fair balance between the need to include a reasonable number of matches and of reflecting how a team do over the year in question.

Because so many Test matches are affected by the weather, we felt it appropriate to introduce a cut-off point, and suggest that drawn Tests which lose more than 150 overs or 10 hours (one-third of the allotted playing time) should not be included.

Under our system a team is awarded points for victories and draws in Test matches played in that period, and from that total figure an average per home and away Test is calculated. Averages are used to allow for the varying number of games played by different countries. Since there have been only two tied Tests among the 1,200-odd played since 1876-77, any teams engineering such an unlikely result will each gain 50 points.

It is suggested that away wins be worth twice as many points as home wins to reflect the much greater achievement in winning away from home (of the last 53 Tests to reach a decisive conclusion, 38 have been won by the home side, 15 by the visitors).

Away draws are also worth twice as much as home draws, but in awarding 100 points for an away victory (50 for one at home) and only 40 for an away draw (20 for one at home) we are establishing a heavy bias in favour of teams that produce results. This accent on enterprise means that a home team losing a series 3-2 would get the same number of points (100) as one who fought out five stalemates.

In terms of simplicity there is a strong case for just adding together a team's home-and-away average and ranking teams according to the total. However, we felt that it is fairer for the overall ranking to reflect a team's prowess at winning Test series as well. Without such an additional figure India would close to within three points of Australia in our current table, because of their 100 per cent record in the five home matches, despite not having won a single away Test match in the period.

We propose that winners of a home series be awarded an additional five points, winners of an away series should get 10.

A team's overall points thus consists of their home average, plus their away average, plus their bonus points for series victories. From the resulting calculations we get a table with the West Indies on top, Australia second and Pakistan a very close third, which seems about right, though England's ranking in fifth place may cause a few raised eyebrows among those forced to watch them during the winter.

We intend to publish the Independent Table of Test cricket at regular intervals throughout the year, and declare the 1993 winners at the end of it, but our method of calculation, though carefully considered, is not set in stone. Readers are invited to suggest modifications and alterations, along with their reasoning. A final means of calculation will be settled on by the end of the current Ashes series.

(Photograph omitted)