The ICC have announced a new structure for international 50-over cricket which they claim will enable top associate nations Ireland and Afghanistan compete for World Cup qualification for the 2019 World Cup.
According to the revised qualification structure announced last year, the top eight sides on the ODI rankings table will qualify for the tournament in England.
Yesterday’s announcement means that if Ireland and/or Afghanistan can work their way into the top eight, they will therefore be going to the World Cup without having to face the qualifier, due to be held in Bangladesh in 2018.
The change was described by ICC Chief Executive Dave Richardson as “a critical step forward to the ICC’s aim of having more competitive teams in international cricket”, but his comments mask the fact that the proposals could leave Ireland and Afghanistan with an even smaller chance of competing at the highest level than they currently have.
Firstly, Ireland and Afghanistan will no longer compete in the ICC World Cricket League (WCL), the 50-over competition for associate and affiliate nations.
While the WCL doesn’t provide top-level opposition, it does guarantee regular competitive cricket against the best teams outside the Test world. Take the WCL off the calendar for the top two associates, and their international schedules would look very bare, unless they were replaced with something equally as valuable.
Which brings up another issue, conveniently ignored in the ICC press release.
Full member nations are extremely reluctant to play associate nations, and thanks to the abandonment of the Future Tours Programme in the Big Three carve-up, there is nothing that can or will force Test-playing nations to give Ireland and Afghanistan regular fixtures.
In fact, Full Members have a short-term incentive to starve them of international matches: if they don’t play enough games against top ODI sides, they have no chance of climbing the table and threatening the automatic qualification spots.
Ireland played more ODIs against Full Member nations in the four years between 2007-2011 than they did in the period 2011-2015.
In 2011, they defeated England at the World Cup.
As they become stronger, and as they pose more of a danger to the elite sides, the top nations are only isolating them further.
While they have theoretically been promoted, the possibility that Ireland and Afghanistan could go to the 2018 World Cup qualifier having been forced to twiddle their thumbs for three years is a realistic and deeply troubling one.
The move is the latest in a long line of raw deals for the associates. The World Cup was reduced in size not to make the tournament shorter (the 2019 edition will not be significantly shorter than the 2015 one), but to ensure the most games for India and guard against the possibility of a giant-killing (like Ireland knocking out Pakistan in 2007) reducing the value of the broadcast rights.
It is neither fairer nor more competitive.
The ICC generously allowed associates the opportunity to qualify for the ten-team tournament via a qualification tournament involving the bottom two Test nations, presumably Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. The 2018 qualifier will be held in Bangladesh (giving them home conditions, and the 2022 edition is scheduled to be held in, you guessed it, Zimbabwe.
The associates are being stitched up at every level of the sport.
Another announcement that was buried in the press release was a promotion-relegation system between the ODI rankings table and the World Cricket League. This will take the form of a challenge series “between the lowest-ranked Associate Member on the Rankings table and the winner of the ICC World Cricket League Championship. The winner of the play-off will be included on the Rankings table for the next cycle, and the loser will compete in the ICC World Cricket League Championship.”
The key phrase here is “the lowest-ranked associate”. Even if Ireland and Afghanistan are not the lowest-ranked ODI nation on the table, one of them will have to play a challenge series to prove they are good enough to stay on the table. If Zimbabwe lose every ODI between now and the challenge series, their status is safe. They don’t have to prove themselves.
Theoretically, Ireland and Afghanistan could hold the two top spots on the ODI table, and one of them would still have to play a challenge series to stay on the table.
There was no corresponding announcement for a promotion-relegation system in first-class cricket, however. So Bangladesh could spend their next fifteen years losing virtually every Test match (just like they’ve spent the last fifteen years), and they will remain a Test nation.
If the ICC were installing anything like the meritocracy they claim they are, that state of affairs would not be allowed to continue.
The news isn’t bad for every associate nation.
With Ireland and Afghanistan no longer part of the World Cricket League Championship, Nepal and Kenya have been promoted to it despite finishing third and fourth in division two this month. In the long run, however, taking the best two teams out of the World Cricket League can only harm associate cricket by reducing the quality of the top competition.
The only way the announcement can be seen as a good thing is if the Full Member nations disregard their self-interest and play regular bilateral ODI series against the top associates. Since the FTP was replaced by ad hoc bilateral agreements, there is neither an incentive nor a compulsion to do so.
On the negative side, the protection of the worst Full Members from any form of relegation shows the ICC does not have the power to make any form of meritocracy apply to the Full Members, who after all run the ICC. This is no form of meritocracy at all.
The ICC press-release concludes with some happy words from Cricket Ireland CEO, Warren Deutrom. He is quoted as saying, “We are absolutely delighted with the opportunity to qualify directly to the ICC Cricket World Cup 2019.” He must know this is not a realistic possibility. “We are confident that we can now accelerate our progress as part of this qualification structure with the Full Members.” Only if they agree to play you, which they probably won’t. “This is also an excellent boost as we put our finishing touches on our preparations for the ICC Cricket World Cup 2015.”
You can almost feel the ICC-issue cattle-prod behind his back.