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In many sports, rankings are produced according to the number of victories that one team or individual has against others. But any sportsperson or fan will tell you that some victories are more important than others.

For example, beating the top ranked team or individual is much more significant than beating the bottom ranked one. So a way of taking this into account in rankings would be a significant step forward.

Just such a mechanism is possible using the PageRank algorithm, Google’s famous process for ranking a web page according to the importance of pages that point to it. The idea here is that a teams importance is determined by the wins it has over other important teams. Wins over lesser teams are less important.

This network-type approach is significantly harder to calculate than a table based only on the number of wins because it is an iterative process. Changes in one part of the network can have far reaching across consequences on other parts of the network.

But with computer technology what it is, there’s no reason why PageRank can’t be applied more widely in sport. Indeed, various researchers have applied it to ranking in sports such as tennis and soccer.

That work has been little more than a warm up for the much more important task of applying PageRank to the grand old empress of sport: cricket. Today Satyam Mukherjee at Northwestern University in Evanston, obliges us with the details.

Mukherjee has taken every test match played between cricketing nations and applied the PageRank algorithm to determine a ranking of the world’s best teams in one day cricket and the full five-day form. He’s also used it to determine the best captains overall and on a decade-by-decade basis.

For fans of cricket–and, let’s face it, who isn’t–the paper makes interesting reading. The best team in both test and one-day cricket turns out to be Australia. And the best captains in test and one-day cricket are Australian too: Steve Waugh and Ricky Pointing, respectively.

That’s no surprise, given Australia’s dominance of the game until relatively recently.

More surprising is the second-placed team, South Africa, because it was excluded from international cricket for many years during the Apartheid era. South Africa’s current captain, Graeme Smith, is also ranked number two in both the test and one day form of the game.

Finally, the captain of the top ranked test team today, England’s Andrew Strauss, places only 19th on the list showing that he and his mates have significantly more to do if they want to be classed as a genuinely world beating side.

The full rankings are in the paper cited below.

There’s clearly merit in this kind of ranking so the next step is to persuade the governing bodies of sports to adopt it as an official ranking system. But given the internal political wrangling that paralyses these kinds of organisations, don’t hold your breath.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1201.1318: Identifying The Greatest Team And Captain − A Complex Network Approach To Cricket Matches

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