Forget the Big Three carve-up, even strugglers are being given a boost
Tim Wigmore reveals how the weakest of the Full Member nations are being given an advantage in the qualifying events for the major tournaments
Cricket’s governing elite like to talk about safeguarding the integrity of international tournaments.Yet doing so is not only about keeping events free of the twin scourges of corruption and drugs, it is also about protecting the fundamental sense of all countries being treated fairly, and the tournaments being decided on the field, not by politicking off it.
Alas, that is not the case. Most egregiously, the Big Three – Australia, England and India – divvied up all six major events from 2016-2023 among themselves, thereby giving themselves home advantage, which is becoming increasingly significant in international cricket.
Even the qualification events for these tournaments lack integrity. While the Big Three host the main events, Full Members most at risk of not qualifying for these have been awarded hosting of the qualifiers. So Sri Lanka are currently hosting the qualifiers for this year’s women’s Word Cup, even though the tournament itself is in England.
Bangladesh were awarded the qualifiers for the 2019 men’s World Cup, also in England, while Zimbabwe were awarded the qualifiers of the 2023 tournament, held in India.
Why? There is a certain argument that the profile of qualifying tournaments benefits markedly if the hosts take part, ensuring bigger crowds in the stadiums and more of a buzz around the event.
But, really the allocation of tournaments is about something else: awarding the qualifiers of the tournaments to these Full Members was a sweetener to help them qualify, and support broader reforms to the ICC.
In the case of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe for the men’s World Cup, giving each nation one qualifier each in the 2015-23 cycle was a way of winning their support for the 10-team World Cup.
They not only stand to benefit when they host the qualifiers, but, because Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have toured each other copiously, both are familiar with playing in each other’s conditions too. It is a distillation of the worse of cricket politics. The countries benefitting can hardly be blamed: their home advantage, after all, was in the spirit of the Big Three getting home advantage for the main events.
One of cricket’s great joys is that conditions are so influential. Those in Sri Lanka in February, where the women’s World Cup qualifiers are now being played, are diametrically opposed to those in England in June. But qualification events should be played in conditions which are similar to those in the tournament proper.
Indeed, a huge reason for the marked improvement of Associate nations as a collective between the 2011 and 2015 World Cups was the qualifying tournaments. While the qualifiers for the 2011 World Cup, in the Sub-continent, were held in South Africa, the tournament to determine the final two qualifiers for the 2015 World Cup, alongside Afghanistan and Ireland, was held in New Zealand, exactly a year before the country co-hosted the main event. The benefits were two-fold. First, the qualifiers could identify the best teams in those conditions, and therefore the ones who could be expected to perform best in the tournament proper.
Second, the qualifiers, especially as they were played on some of the grounds that hosted World Cup matches, helped to improve the teams in those conditions, making them betterprepared for when they returned there in the World Cup itself.
Alas, these lessons have been utterly disregarded since. “Qualifying tournament in Sri Lanka, tournament in England... Like doing qualifying lap for Monaco Grand Prix at Silverstone,” bemoaned Preston Mommsen, Scotland’s former captain. Sri Lanka, the traditional ‘big eight’ nation most in peril of missing out on a place in the women’s World Cup, have home advantage, while Pakistan, the other big beast who could have been at risk, had the boon of
Sri Lanka, the traditional ‘big eight’ nation most in peril of missing out on a place in the women’s World Cup, have home advantage
playing in familiar conditions, too. Meanwhile Ireland, who beat South Africa twice at home last summer, are undermined by playing in sweltering heat and humidity in the middle of the Irish winter. Ireland would have had a good chance of qualifying for an event in English conditions, like those in the World Cup itself, but devising a tournament designed to ascertain the best eight countries in the world for a tournament played in England is clearly not anyone’s concern.
If it is not exactly institutionalised corruption, it is not far off. Clearly, those with the votes in ICC executive board want some teams to qualify at the expense of others, and are giving them the most important advantage in the sport today – being able to play at home – to boost their chances of doing so.
In the process, the integrity of the qualifying tournaments are fatally undermined, adding to the sense of cricket being a sport in which the decks are rigged. The quality of play in the global events themselves, and the globalisation of the sport, stands to suffer.
The only solace is that, just occasionally, the plans to confer home advantages on countries in jeopardy on missing out on qualification fall awry. Bangladesh were awarded the qualifiers for the 2019 World Cup, on the assumption that they would be ranked outside the top eight nations, and therefore be in the qualifying tournament itself.
Bangladesh have soared since, winning six straight ODI series at home to reach seventh in the world. As a result, there is a good chance that they will gain automatic qualification for the World Cup by the cut-off, at the end of September this year.
With Bangladesh not playing in the qualifiers, there would seem no incentive for them to host them. And Bangladesh plan to give up hosting rights for the qualification tournament if they have already made the event. Were that the case, then it would be a prime opportunity for the tournament to be moved to conditions resembling the main event. Ireland and Scotland have already said they would be able to step in to host the World Cup qualifying tournament. That would give the two home advantage, but in conditions essentially analogous to those in England, and be far preferable to the incongruity of the make-up of a tournament in England being determined by performances in Bangladesh.
But it would be a happy outcome reached only by happenstance, and future qualification tournaments face being as iniquitous as the ongoing qualifiers for the women’s World Cup.
In its myopia, cricket seems wedded to global events that are exclusive in the worse sense of the word – a men’s World Cup of ten nations, and a women’s tournament of only eight, and are which antithetical to expansionism.
If ensuring the integrity of the qualification tournaments seems like the bare minimum that could be done, even this has normally proved beyond those who run the sport.
Anglo-Irish accord: Ireland would benefit from the logic of hosting the qualifiers for the next World Cup
Disquiet: Scotland’s Preston Mommsen voiced his concerns
Improving: Bangladesh may gain entry direct into the next World Cup and would then not want to host the qualifiers