For­get the Big Three carve-up, even strug­glers are be­ing given a boost

The Cricket Paper - - ASSOCIATE NATIONS -

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.

PIC­TURES: Getty Im­ages

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

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