Edging Up and Down

19th February 2021

The International Cricket Council (ICC) world rankings of test-playing countries are determined via a rigorous statistical process that takes account of all the test matches played over the previous 3-4 years. For a team to reach the Number 1 position requires, therefore, that it has consistent success over a significant period. Last month, it was announced that, following their latest series win over the West Indies, New Zealand had acquired this status.

Congratulations to them. They have three excellent seam bowlers (Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner), a fine wicketkeeper-batsman in BJ Watling and, in their captain Kane Williamson, the batsman currently rated as the best in the world. Moreover, they play the sport in what I (and many others, no doubt) consider to be the right spirit – hard and fair and with a smile on their collective face – to the great credit of Williamson and his predecessor, Brendon McCullum.

As it happened, the announcement coincided with my viewing of the excellent documentary The Edge (Noah Media Group, 2019), which charted the rise between 2009 and 2011 of the England team to be the ICC Number 1 side (having started at 7th) and then catalogued their subsequent decline. The documentary makes for fascinating (and, at times, difficult) viewing, particularly in revealing the tolls – physical and mental – that were exacted of the players in the England squad by the coach, Andy Flower, in the drive to reach the top of the tree.

Much of the material is not unexpected. It is likely that even the relatively casual follower of the England team would have been familiar with the personality traits of the likes of Alastair Cook, Tim Bresnan and Graeme Swann, as respectively described by the captain, Andrew Strauss: “doggedness, determination, resilience”, “a solid, dependable person” and “chief joker, buffoon, pain the arse… invaluable”. In this respect, it is reassuring that our expectations are confirmed.

The Edge spends a considerable length of time on the virtues and flaws of Kevin Pietersen: from his commanding presence and frequently superlative batting through to undermining his captain by texting his (Pietersen’s) friends in the South African changing room during the Headingley test of 2012. There is a noticeably perceptive comment about him from Paul Collingwood: “When he first came into the England side, he needed England. As his career went on, the less he needed England, the harder he was to manage”. However, it is Pietersen himself who, perhaps unwittingly, provides the most revealing insight, when referring to his need to take a break from the non-stop demands placed on him to play the various forms of the game: “As soon as you take your whites off, your value and your brand just … fall off the face of a cliff”. I suspect that, with Pietersen, it was – and is – always about the brand.

We are probably also not surprised – though still made uncomfortable – by seeing the venomous hostility that exists in some test match confrontations, particularly those pitching England against Australia. The sledging appears to be vicious and unremitting with no prisoners taken. I happen to think that the spite-ridden comment made by the Australian captain, Michael Clarke, to James Anderson, as he came out to bat as England’s last man to face the fearsome Mitchell Johnson in the Brisbane test of November 2013 – “get ready for a broken f…… arm” – ranks with the worst type of drugs-cheating in terms of being the antithesis of what international sport is supposed to represent.

[An aside. It appears that the boorish nonsense
consistently brought to the game by New Zealand’s neighbours across the Tasman
Sea is not restricted to Ashes encounters.
Australia’s trite apologia following the exposure of the
“Sandpaper-gate” scandal in South Africa in 2018 seems to have now bitten the
dust, judging by their on-field behaviour in the recent (lost) home test series
against India].

The Edge’s most revealing insights concern the emotional costs that were borne by some of the England players. Stephen Finn refers to bursting into tears during a session with the team doctor, whilst Monty Panesar describes bingeing on junk food in the safe confinement of his hotel room.

However, the most painful – and poignant – viewing concerns the effects on Jonathan Trott who, in his own words, by the time of the same Brisbane test “…was really struggling internally… in tears on the field… [with] banging going on in my head”. Not that his circumstances generated any sympathy from some of those paid to offer their supposedly expert analysis of the proceedings. “Pretty poor, pretty weak” opined David Warner, as Trott left the field after being dismissed.

My main grievance with The Edge is with the hype and inaccuracy attached to one of its core statements. There are several references to England not having reached the ICC’s Number 1 position before – and, indeed, the DVD box states that they “[became] the first and only English side to reach world number one”. To me, this did not sound quite right.

The ICC began ranking teams in 2003 and it is the case that England had not been in the Number 1 position in the period to 2011. But test cricket records date from 1877 – when Australia first hosted England at the Melbourne Cricket Ground – not 2003. In this respect, the documentary’s retrospectively short-sighted presentation of test match history mirrors that of the media cheerleaders of the Super League, who often seem to view professional rugby league as having started in 1996 not 1895, or of soccer’s Premiership, who forget that English football has had a top flight since 1888, not just from 1992.

To examine The Edge’s claims about England’s historical Number 1 status (or the lack of it), let us consider the years from 1950 onwards. As noted in the previous blog (The Test Match World Title,4th February 2021), this was a period in which there were at least 6 test match playing nations, rising to 8 by the time of South Africa’s re-emergence into the international arena in 1991. It was also a period in which England enjoyed lengthy stretches when they either won or drew several consecutive series against all of the other test-playing nations: 14 between 1950-51 and 1958-59, 9 between 1966 and 1971 and 8 between 1976 and 1979-80 (the West Indies excepted in this last period). It is difficult to believe that England were not the Number 1 ranked team for at least part of these times.

And so it was the case. What The Edge did not report was that the ICC itself has retrospectively calculated its own test match rankings back to 1952 and that these are readily accessible. England were at Number 1 in four separate periods (covering a total of 106 months) over the subsequent half century, including for 33 months after June 1955 and 37 months after January 1970.

As noted, The Edge is an excellent documentary and it is recommended viewing for anyone with an interest in the sport. It’s just a shame that it had to play fast and loose with test match cricket’s historical record.

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