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Cricket's Toynbee effect - Suresh Menon Column
by Suresh Menon
Jan 11, 2009
By Suresh Menon

It is entirely possible that at the end of the South Africa series, Australia will continue as the number one team in the world. This, despite South Africa's triumph, and claim to being regarded as the best regardless of what the computer says. Australia's slide has affected people in strange ways. In Australia, there is call for the head of the chief selector, there is a slew of what-might-have-beens and things that should have been done. And had skipper Ricky Ponting not made the runs he did in the third Test, doubtless he would have been the most popular scapegoat.

At least one newspaper has blamed the IPL for Australia's loss, pointing out how the two men who didn't take part in the Twenty20 tournament in India - Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson - have been the most successful. A good argument, except that, by the same reckoning, England should have thumped India since not a single one of their players participated in the IPL.

In sport, there is the fallacy of the single reason, when events usually require multiple explanations. The most important reason for Australia's decline has been the simultaneous retirement of three of its all-time greats, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist. There are other reasons too - Ponting, for example, has said that while other countries learnt from Australia at their peak, Australia themselves refused to learn from other countries.

In sport too, great champions have their rise and fall, with the elements that helped them remain at the top now becoming counter-productive, much in the manner Arnold Toynbee saw it happen to great civilizations.

In India, Sunil Gavaskar has written that there is much rejoicing at Australia's fall because they are a badly-behaved team. He has compared this to the fall of the West Indies, who were both the finest team and the most popular when they were at the top of the heap.

Forgotten are the reactions when the West Indies fast bowlers were ruling the world - the slow over rates, and the intimidation that seemed to make cricket less interesting, almost unidimensional. The most telling picture of the period was the shattered nose of the English captain Mike Gatting who couldn't get his head out of the way of a Malcolm Marshall delivery quickly enough.

Although formal, computerized ranking in cricket is a recent phenomenon, there has always been a champion side - a notion arrived at by common consent and informal agreement. At the start of the 1970s, for example, South Africa were out of the reckoning, thanks to their government's policy of apartheid, but they had beaten Australia 4-0. India beat the West Indies away, and then beat England away after England had beaten Australia in the Ashes series. The calculation was simple enough, at least for Indian supporters.

Now the computer does the work, and brings to the calculations an apparent objectivity, even if Australia remain at the top after losing successive series.

Australia have ruled for nearly a decade and a half. That is a long stretch in sports. It is unlikely that whoever takes over - whether it is South Africa or India - by the end of the new year, will have such a clear run for so long. The more likely scenario is a bunch of two or three teams at the top taking the number one spot for brief periods. South Africa will begin to feel the pressure as soon as they reach the top; India will need to improve their away record if they hope to make a long-term impact.

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