ICC’s Hunger Games add to the folly of the ten team World Cup

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In the heat of Harare and Bulawayo, largely out of sight of the television cameras, the most significant cricket of 2018 is being played.

For those to emerge triumphant the rewards are considerable; for the also-rans, their very future is at risk. In international cricket’s take on the Hunger Games, the stakes could not be higher.

The ICC’s decision to reduce the 2019 and 2023 World Cups to just ten teams has had far-reaching consequences. With opportunities for Associate cricketers already limited by a combination of the Future Tours Programme and Full Member indifference, the restriction of one of the few avenues for those in the second tier to show what they can do on the global stage is as significant as it is keenly felt.

With eight places at England 2019 already allocated the remaining two slots are being decided at the ICC World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe. The ten teams starting the tournament included four Full Members, with former champions West Indies lining up alongside the hosts and the two newest inductees to that exclusive club, Ireland and Afghanistan, as well as the Netherlands, Scotland, Hong Kong, Papua New Guinea, Nepal and the UAE.

Each team earned their place in Zimbabwe on merit. Each team would bring something unique to the final stages of the main tournament. Thanks to the ICC, however, only two will be given the chance to do so.

If the case for the prosecution needed to be strengthened further, the group stage of the Qualifier provided a good deal of the evidence necessary. Much-fancied Afghanistan were comfortably beaten by two Associates, Scotland and Hong Kong, and with just a single victory to their name were left to rely on a favour from another, Nepal,to sneak them into the second phase.

West Indies, a nation with one of the proudest histories in the sport, discovered that even with Chris Gayle, Marlon Samuels and Jason Holder in tow there was no guarantee of an easy ride. Having survived an almighty scare against PNG and stumbled to a less-than-convincing win against the Dutch, two teams that didn’t make it past the group stages, the Windies unbeaten progression to the Super Six was considerably less emphatic than the final group table suggested.

That the Associate nations have more than held their own against the Full Members counts for little, however. Instead, heaping insult onto injury, Nepal, Hong Kong and PNG were left to fight it out to either keep, or gain,a single golden ticket to ODI status. Nepal, to their delight, succeeded. For the other two, however, an uncertain future now awaits.

In a world in which both the FIFA and Rugby World Cups are growing, why does cricket appear so determined to contract? The answer lies, unsurprisingly, in the balance sheets. With the new plans guaranteeing India at least nine matches in the final stages – including, of course, the most money-spinning one of all, against Pakistan– the most lucrative television market, and those negotiating the broadcast rights, can drink their fill.

And, as has been made clear, the Devil take the hindmost.

“There are lots of commercial implications to consider,” said ICC Chief Executive David Richardsonasthe new format was unveiled back in 2015. “We need to have a look at the attendances at all the Associate games, what were the viewing figures, and see where they really stand.

“We want the World Cup to not just be window-dressing but a shop window for cricket at the highest level.”

But what finer example of that could be provided than the one currently being played out? Every game has given a story. Calum MacLeod’s Rashid-taming 157 in Scotland’s opening-day win over Afghanistan, for example, a third ODI score of over 150 for the former Durham batsman which has elevated him into a league of his own; Hong Kong’s first-ever victory over a Full Member in an official ODI; Scotland and Zimbabwe’s breathless encounter which ended in that rarest of beasts, a last-ball tie; Nepal’s recovery from group stage disappointment to win that precious ODI status for the first time in their history.

Every game has been a shop window for cricket. Every game has provided its own illustration of all that should be celebrated in the international game. Yet with no live streaming and only two games televised out of the twenty that were played in the group stages – both of them, unsurprisingly,featuring West Indies –the ICC has clearly decided that providing proper coverage isn’t worth their while. The reaction from around the world will, I’m sure, have told them otherwise.

On top of the ultimate irony of an untelevised qualifier being played for a tournament redesigned for television has been the cack-handed reporting of it on social media, too. Official ICC updates have been characterised by errors and confusion, often stemming from a misunderstanding of their own rules. List A games have been described as ODIs, players have been recognised for reaching landmarks that weren’t and in one case Zimbabwe, coincidentally (perhaps) a Full Member, was congratulated for beating Scotland at the end of the aforementioned tie. If the ICC is trying to give the impression that this is a tournament that they genuinely care about, they are not making a great fist of it.

As I write Scotland sit alongside Zimbabwe at the top of the Super Six table. Just one more win from their remaining two matches, against either Ireland or West Indies, could see them qualify. It would be a remarkable, against-the-odds achievement for Grant Bradburn’s side and a just reward for the mind-boggling amount of work that all involved in Scottish cricket are continuing to put in; but also, presumably, one for which the powers-that-be will give themselves a pat on the back in vindication of their position. “Look,” they will say. “We were right all along. A team which deserves will rise to the top.”

But if Scotland do it will be in spite, not because, of those that call the shots at the top of the governing body.

Despite the immensely valuable work of the ICC’s High Performance Programme and Regional Development bodies,the vested interests of those national boards with the greatest influence at the highest tier of the organisation are damaging the long-term global future of our sport. PNG and Hong Kong’s reward for ‘failure’ in the Qualifier has been the loss of their ODI status coupled with relegation to Division Two of the World Cricket League. For the teams which earned their spot in Zimbabwe after finishing third and fourth in the World Cricket League Championship it is an unnecessarily harsh blow from which, potentially, neither might recover.

What other sport punishes in this way? Why must cricket be about the survival of the fittest? How can the ICC square their stated aims with the reality of the effect of their decisions on the ground?

“On the one hand we want to [provide] more opportunities for the Associate members,” David Richardson has said. “We want to try and achieve more competitive teams at the highest level.

“But on the other hand if you’re an Associate member player the ICC pays for you to go play in the Intercontinental Cup, the World Cricket League Championship, play in ICC events from time to time,” he told ESPNcricinfo.

“So I think we must try and avoid a sense of entitlement, whether it’s from the Associate members or the Full Members.”

In the Associate world, however, the talk is not of entitlement but opportunity. For all the talk of pathways and chances for Associates to prove their worth through tournaments such as the present Qualifier, it is only through regular exposure to top-level cricket that the competitive sides so desired by Richardson can be developed. And by demoting rather than supporting teams the moment they slip up, how can anyone realistically expect them to progress?

World Cup

As the Qualifier is proving, Associate cricket is stronger than it has ever been. Through blood, sweat and tears and in the face of enormous odds the top Associate teams continue to close the gap to the Full Members. They have earned their right to show the world what they can do in the final stages of what should be, after all, a celebration of the global game. That their participation is a sacrifice the ICC is willing to make in exchange for TV dollars, however, is to the untold detriment of the sport they are charged to protect.

And by turning their premier event into what is effectively a Champions Trophy-plus-two the ICC is playing with fire in other ways, too. The new format relies on the continuing appetite of the public to tune in to what will inevitably be the same teams playing each other. By contracting rather than expanding their showpiece the ICC risks it becoming something that will never be said of its equivalents in any other sport.

Routine.

Quite apart from the damage being done to the Associate game – and, lest we forget, those Full Members languishing at the bottom of the pecking order, too – the price paid for the ICC’s short-term financial gain may well be long-term public indifference. Like a latter-day Marie Antoinette, when it comes to the Associates those at the top may be content to ‘let them eat cake’ today. When it comes to their own position, however, they may well discover that there is no jam tomorrow.

Jake Perry is a cricket writer based in Scotland.

Twitter             @jperry_cricket

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