It was an all too familiar ending for Scotland’s cricketers in their campaign to qualify for next year’s Cricket World Cup. Having dismissed their theoretically far stronger opponent’s star batsman Chris Gayle with the very first delivery of the game and limited the West Indies (Windies) to just 198, it was the heavens which provided the knockout blow, with Scotland just five runs behind the Duckworth-Lewis par score when the deluge intervened.
It was a painful exit for a Scotland side which had shown much promise in their qualifying campaign, going unbeaten in a group which included the likes of Afghanistan and Zimbabwe. Their defeat of the former was particularly impressive, with Callum Macleod scoring 157 in a seven-wicket victory over the newly ordained full member nation. Victories over Hong Kong and Nepal ensured their qualification from the group stage even despite a tie against hosts Zimbabwe, while a 73-run drubbing of the UAE left the Scots in a strong position after the first round in the “Super 6s” stage. But such is the nature of the convoluted tournament structure of the World Cup Qualifiers that a 25-run defeat by Ireland meant that they would need to defeat the West Indies in their final game to have a chance to qualify.
And how close they were. Reduced to 25-3, the Scots recovered to 105-4 when, in the 32nd over, Richie Berrington was rapped on the pads by a delivery from spinner Ashley Nurse and was given out. Hawkeye showed that the ball would have gone on to miss the stumps completely, but, for a reason lost on all but the International Cricket Council, Decision Review System (DRS) was not in use for the qualifying tournament, meaning that the erroneous decision stood. This proved crucial, as, while Scotland were already behind the D/L par score, the loss of an additional wicket meant that the efforts of George Munsey and Michael Leask to catch up before the rain arrived were not enough, and when the heavens eventually did open, the Scots, while agonisingly close to defeating a second full member nation in the tournament, found themselves five runs short of the required total.
In the end, the Windies will travel with Afghanistan to the main tournament, to be held in England next year, and, as a whole, the qualifiers demonstrated that the gap in quality between the associate and full member nations for the ICC is closing at a dramatic rate. One might question, therefore: why a qualification tournament is necessary at all? In the past, the Cricket World Cup has featured numerous associate members, with such memorable inclusions as Bermuda’s Dwayne Leverock throwing his almighty heft to his right in a spectacular diving catch to dismiss India’s Robin Uthappa. There have also been a number of upsets, with then-associates Ireland defeating England in the 2011 edition. But, in a move that only the pencil-pushers of the ICC could make, the 2019 Cricket World Cup will include only 10 nations, and, for the first time in history, no associate members.
The 10 teams are made up of the top eight nations in the ICC ODI rankings along with the two finalists of the qualifiers, which in turn were made up of the remaining 4 teams in the ICC ODI rankings along with semi-finalists and finalists from various lower ICC tournaments. This method of qualification all but ensures that the final two spots in the main tournament will go to two of the remaining full member nations since an associate team would have to consistently outplay the better funded and facilitated full members. The Scots nearly did this, mind, but it is a lot to ask of teams often made up partially or in full by amateurs.
The effects of the new qualification method will almost certainly be extremely damaging to the associate nations, and for some it could well be devastating. Competing against full member nations allows weaker teams the opportunity to learn from some of the best in the world, and even just appearing in a global tournament such as the Cricket World Cup provides exposure to players and teams that would have never reached the eyes of many fans. Importantly, this aids the growth of the game of cricket, which is still very much a minority sport just about everywhere except the subcontinent.
The ICC’s motivations are to a degree understandable. Games between the likes of England and Australia and lower ranked teams certainly have potential to provide boring, one-sided games of cricket that do nothing for the image of the game. Thus, a tournament made up of stronger teams logically would consistently provide more exciting contests. But are upsets not the most exciting games in just about any sport? By the same argument, the FA Cup should be reduced to just premier league sides, because a game between, say, Manchester United and Stevenage Town is on paper a one-sided bore fest. And yet, as years of giant killings have shown, supposedly one-sided games are often more balanced than they seem, and when the underdogs come out on top it provides a spectacle unlike any other in the sport.
Another motivation often tendered is that, in its previous format, the Cricket World Cup was too long. There were simply too many insignificant games in too long a period that the tournament never really gained any momentum. And, again, this is a perfectly rational argument. But, as seems to be the want of the ICC, they have managed to conceive of a format which, while including fewer teams, actually increases the length of the tournament by two days over the last edition. The tournament will consist of one 10-team group, with each team playing all other teams in a round-robin format, followed by semi-finals and finals for the top four ranked teams. This is a format which has dead rubber written all over it. Granted, it is the same format used by many domestic T20 leagues, but in a world cup where games are often a touch tepid at the best of times, the addition of potentially multiple rounds of pointless games of cricket seems a touch strange.
All in all, the ICC’s decision-making appears to be flawed on multiple counts, from reducing the world cup to 10 teams in the first place to the decision to not implement DRS in the qualifying tournament, which could well have cost Scotland a place in next year’s World Cup. I hope, for the good of the game of cricket, that the ICC see that the logic that led them to effectively exclude associate nations from the game’s most public stage is flawed, because the already tenuous global reach of international cricket could be dangerously and irreversibly damaged should such exclusion continue.