The pressures of being ranked
Steve Harmison's demons.
21 August 2019
In 1987, Ted Dexter, Gordon Vince and I devised the mathematical system behind what are now the official ICC international rankings of cricketers.* These are, in effect, a guide to which players would make it into a hypothetical World XI if it were to be picked tomorrow.
The rankings have become quite popular in the cricket world. Many fans regard them as definitive ("Kohli is currently the BEST batsman in the world, the rankings say so") and although some journalists have reservations, most are keen to quote the rankings, especially when they make a good headline.
Meanwhile, it seems that some players' agents set a lot of store by these tables. When Australia's Steve Smith was banned for a year for the ball tampering incident in 2018, I was surprised to get an email from his agent asking what impact his one year absence would have on his ranking. (For the record, Smith was ranked number oneTest batsman in the world at the time, and he lost points for all the matches he missed during his ban, which dropped him to fourth place.)
But what do the players themselves think about the rankings?
Over the years, I've talked to a few players and read or heard about comments from others. The views are mixed. There are a few players who care a lot about all of their stats, and follow the rankings closely. Some of them even set themselves a goal of getting into the world top ten. Other players (the majority) look at the rankings but are a bit bemused by them ('How do these things WORK?'), especially if they are ranked lower than they feel they deserve to be. And finally there are players who barely know the rankings exist, and pay no attention to them whatsoever.
The main interest in the player rankings is in which player is currently the World Number One. Since the men's Test rankings were launched in 1987, there have been six England players who have topped the rankings at some point in their career. What were their reactions to being number one?
My guess is that Michael Vaughan and Stuart Broad both set a lot of store on the fact that they briefly occupied the World Number One spot in their careers. Vaughan went top of the batting rankings in 2003, and Broad was top bowler in 2015/16. It wouldn't surprise me if both players like to remind others of this.
Joe Root (who first made it to No.1 in 2015) and Jimmy Anderson (2016) have been more consistent high performers, and don't need to be told that they have been among the best players of their generation - though they are no doubt happy enough that the rankings have confirmed this.
Meanwhile Graham Gooch (1991) had a laid back attitude to stats, and I think he was mildly amused to discover he'd made it to World No.1 after his amazing 154* at Headingley in 1991 - just as he had been mildly irked to find he had dropped out of the world top 30 a couple of years earlier.
And then there was Steve Harmison (number one bowler in 2004).
Harmison was notorious as a player who battled with a lack of confidence and intense home sickness. His excellent autobiography, entitled 'Speed Demons' begins very starkly with the following line:
'2004. I was the Number one bowler in the world. And that was as bad as it got.'
Harmison was a team player. For years, he'd felt he wasn't good enough to play for England, yet after a burst of amazing bowling performances over several Test matches, he found himself top of the world rankings (deservedly in most people's view). Suddenly he was no longer just one of the lads, he was singled out as special, the focus of everyone's attention, and now carrying the expectation that he would bowl brilliantly every time. And he didn't like it at all. I have sometimes wondered if all that attention contributed to the reversal of form that saw Harmison's bowling fall apart in the Ashes of 2006/7 (few who watched it will forget his first ball in Brisbane that was so wide, it went straight to first slip).
A couple of weeks ago, I was at Kings Cross station waiting to catch a train to Newcastle when a familiar tall figure walked past me. I instinctively nodded, only to realise that it was Steve Harmison, who of course had no idea who I was. I looked away, then looked back, and watched as he hauled his case along the platform, all the way to the front carriage. I suspect he chose that carriage to ensure he was away from the public gaze. I was half tempted to wander up to the first carriage myself, take a seat nearby, and see if perhaps we might casually get into conversation. I would love to have asked him about his feelings in 2004, and what it's like to be on the receiving end of a ranking telling you how 'good' you are. But sensibly I decided against it. It's probably the last thing he wanted to talk about.
All of this made me think about rankings and league tables in general, not just in sport. As long as we aren't the thing that is being ranked, most of us are intrigued by them, and set store by them - whether it's the ranking of a sports player ...
...or a school.
If Smithdown High School ranks higher than Jonesville Free School for GCSE results, it inevitably influences our opinion of the relative merits of the two schools. Those of us not employed by the school will usually regard the league table as a handy guide and perhaps even a source of diverting gossip, but for the teachers it is far more serious. And while there are schools (usually those ranked highly) who think rankings are important and valuable, for others they are little more than a stress-inducing distraction. Even at the top of the table, some schools and teachers are Michael Vaughans, but others are Steven Harmisons, and I think it is good for us to remember that.
* You can read the story of how this came about on my old blog post here: www.robeastaway.com/blog/cricket-rankings