Under 19 Confusion

In the last few weeks the regional tournaments for the forthcoming Under 19 World Cup have been taking place and quite frankly, the qualification process is not only confusing but very unfair.

Firstly, now Afghanistan and Ireland are full members, should they have to qualify at all? I understand that the motion to admit them as FMs is a recent one, but it can only be seen as peculiar that they are the only members with that status who are going through the qualifying process.  Bizarre.

Nepal’s grounds for complaint are even greater.  Finishing second in the Asian group behind Afghanistan sees them eliminated, despite the fact they finished above three FMs in the last tournament (four if you include Australia who didn’t attend on security grounds).  Yet they still have to try to qualify when other FMs walk straight through to the tournament proper. I know I bang on about this sort of thing a lot, but for every step forward the ICC make in trying to grow the global game, they take two steps back.

Still, what it will provide is some heart-wrenching stories when games have real meaning, The winner takes all Ireland Scotland match concluded today with an extraordinary finish, Ireland managing to defend a paltry total of 108 as the Scots lost four wickets in double quick succession to falter by 5 runs. A photo (second from last in the link) of an Irish player consoling his distraught Scottish counterpart is already doing the rounds on social media and draws comparison to the famous Flintoff and Lee photo from the 2005 Ashes. Such is what it means when everything is at stake.

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Test Status and the next Big Thing

Unless you’ve been living in a cave this past week, you’ll know that the ICC have confirmed Full Member status for Ireland and Afghanistan, making them the 11th and 12th Full Members and the first since Bangladesh in 2000. For both countries it is a magnificent achievement, particularly Afghanistan, who barely had a team 15 years ago. Their rise through the World Cricket League, with three successive promotions followed by gaining ODI status in 2009 is nothing short of a miracle for the war-torn country. Ireland have been knocking on the door for years, and you could argue this decision comes five years too late for them, as their side that scored historic World Cup wins over England, Pakistan  and the West Indies is now in decline.

Still, both countries have superb management off the field, with secure domestic structures which were granted first-class status last year and excellent behind the scenes administration, both of which are well looked upon in the ICC corridors.

There are issues, though. The revenue sharing model for the next cycle to 2023 still has the BCCI receiving the lion’s share, and the amount for the two new Full Members comes from the Associate slice, which has been reduced. Hardly a level playing field. A second issue will be the paucity of fixtures. The ICC have been floating a potential Test Championship split 9/3, with Zimbabwe joining Ireland and Afghanistan in the lower tier and the 9 other FMs playing each other home and away over a four year cycle. This idea is still to be signed off, but even if it is implemented any series outside of the Championship can still be arranged between FMs if they wish.So the prospect of an England vs Ireland series is not off the table.

These are real problems, but to be optimistic for once, this decision does give hope to all Associates that there is a pathway to Tests that can be conquered. With that in mind I’ve done a bit of fantasy thinking. Who could be the next Afghanistan, rising from obscurity to become the next powerhouse of cricket? It’s a big shot in the dark but I think Germany. They have recently won back-to-back promotions in the regional European 50 over competitions and will now be competing in World Cricket League Division Five in South Africa in September. This is a country with huge potential. The recent influx of migrants from places like Afghanistan has produced an explosion of interest in cricket in Germany, with the number of clubs increasing hugely. Whilst at the moment these are made up primarily of expats, this growth is exciting for the sport in that country. Involving the native population will be the next struggle, but regular wins in the WCL was what started Afghanistan on their incredible journey.  Whose to say Germany won’t be next?

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Champions Trophy Preview

Ok, so it’s here. Short, sharp, eight teams, over in less than three weeks, the Champions Trophy. To be honest I think most people would be hard-pressed to name all the previous winners such is the status of this tournament as the World Cup’s boisterous little brother. Still, it’s format means no game is meaningless and unless you hit the ground running, it’s curtains. So here are the two groups and some wild, unlikely predictions.

Group A

England – Perennial underachievers in the short forms of the game. Bottled it in the final last time around against India, and their 50 over nadir was reached with the pitiful 2015 World Cup campaign. Since then a major transformation has taken place – attacking mindset, scores over 300 on a regular basis, attacking in the powerplays, huge self-belief.  Great all-rounders who bat all the way down, including Ben Stokes, a global superstar right now. All this and on home turf too. Probably favourites on paper, and should be finalists at the very least.

Australia – Always in with a shout. Lethal at the top of the order with Warner and Chris Lynn, who hits sixes for fun. A yorker bowling nightmare in Mitchell Starc, who is unsurpassed in this format, rounds off a highly potent bowling attack who will cause any team problems. Semi-finalists at worst.

New Zealand – Again, useful, Huge game first up against their rivals across the pond will define their tournament. Williamson and Guptill major stars with the bat, slightly less formidable with the ball.

Bangladesh – Often considered also-rans, but not any more. Beat New Zealand convincingly in a warm up and have been climbing the ODI ranks steadily in recent years. If Tamim Iqbal fires with the bat up top and can be backed up by Shakib Al Hasan and co, could cause a few shocks. Hard to see them getting out of this group, though.

Group B

India – Easily among the favourites. Defending champions, loads of strength in depth. Virat Kohli is a sensation with the bat and Ashwin and Jadeja are the premier spinners in the competition and both handy with the willow, too. Should win the group.

Pakistan – Huge game first up against India will set the tone. Always unpredictable but have some exciting young talent, not least Babar Azam, who was supremely fast to 1000 runs in ODIs. Would expect them to miss out on the knockout phase, though.

South Africa – With the players they have, should do well. I saw them demolish England at Lord’s the other day and they were excellent. Kagiso Rabada is 90mph + and his mix of yorkers and pitched-up seamers were unplayable. With AB De Villiers and De Kock they always look to score quick and pressure opposing teams. Must be in with a shout.

Sri Lanka – On the decline since the heady days of the 1990s and don’t have much hope in getting out of the group. Lasith Malinga is still chucking them down and Sandakan’s wrist spin will defy a few, but batting wise they look lightweight.

So, if you twist my arm I’d say an England vs India final. I wouldn’t like to choose a winner from there, but I can never completely dismiss an England collapse again…

Oh, and if you’re wondering where the West Indies are, they didn’t qualify and will be playing a bilateral series against Afghanistan while the tournament is on. Shame they have missed out but that is how cricket should be – matches with context and repercussions for those who perform poorly.

An exciting tournament in prospect then, even though we will all have probably forgotten the winter by Christmas. C’est la vie!

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Slain by the Archer

After Jofra Archer had bowled four overs, I turned to my Dad and said, ‘I’ve been disappointed with Archer so far.  He hasn’t got the batsman playing enough. Far too many easy deliveries outside off-stump to leave.’ By the end of the day, Archer had taken seven wickets and my statement had become a stupid mistake.

Taking in my first County Championship action for years was nothing of the sort, though. A large crowd was present for Sussex against Kent, and even the weather was exceeding expectations, with the sun breaking through the clouds for the early days play. Kent eschewed the no-toss rule so a toss took place. Kent won and decided to bat first, which I thought was a surprise. The pitch looked dry but conditions early on were conducive to swing and Sussex’s attack contained Vernon Philander, a genuine world-class swing bowler. So I was somewhat nervous when Kent came out to bat.

After my faux pas, it was Archer who took centre stage. His ball to defeat Daniel Bell-Drummond was a ripper, pitching outside off and swinging back in to demolish middle stump. That gave him a confidence boost, and for the rest of the day he caused problems for all Kent’s batsman, attacking the stumps with a consistent line and some hostile bouncers.

Philander had problems with the footmarks at the Sea End and was not his customary self, and it was only when Ajmal Shazhad entered the attack that the game moved on. He was hit for fifteen off his first over but came back to bowl Joe Denly, then had Sam Northeast caught off a toe-end. After an expensive start I thought he bowled with pace and aggression and deserved his scalps.

At the lunch break I had a wander out to the middle and was surprised by the strength of the breeze at the Sea End, particularly as the bowlers run-up is slightly uphill and into the wind. Which made Archer’s afternoon exploits even more impressive as he bowled from this end for long periods, and had Kent in all sorts of trouble with two wickets in two balls, Sean Dickson caught behind after a painstaking 68 then Adam Rouse castled. Wayne Parnell avoided the hat-trick ball, partly by indulging in some gamesmanship about the sightscreen to slow the game down and take the sting out of the moment.

Once that passed, Parnell and the irrepressible Darren Stevens turned the game in Kent’s favour. I don’t know what to say about Stevens really – an absolute legend who, at nearly 41, is still a vital part of the Kent middle order. He attacked the bowling with his usual bluster and verve and kept the score ticking over until the new ball was taken. Then he prompted to hit Philander for 6 with his first ball with the new nut, such is the audacity of the bloke. The century partnership came up in quick time and Stevens was looking good for a century until he tickled Shazhad behind.

Then the Archer show began again. After Stevens dismissal, Tredwell, Coles and Claydon came and went in quick succession, the former brilliantly caught by Chris Nash in the slips. Parnell hit a couple of lusty blows to take Kent’s total past 300 and reach 50 himself, but the day belonged to Archer, who ended up with figures of 7-67. It was a brilliant performance and on current showing, the West Indies may be interested in him very soon.

Sussex had an awkward six overs to face in fading light, and lost Nash lbw to Matt Coles in the dying moments. For me this gave Kent the edge on the day.  It reminded me of the pleasures of the long-form game – to-and-fro across sessions, great individual performances, little contests within the contest. There are few greater joys, with good company, cold beer, and even some April sunburn! Still, after that Archer comment I gained a red face in more ways than one!

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Hong Kong Blitz It

The Hong Kong T20 Blitz is unique in world cricket as being the only successful franchise tournament run by an Associate member of the ICC.  IPL, Big Bash, CPL – all are money-spinning events attracting world-class players.  But in many way, the Blitz is the most important of all in the context of the global game.

Ther are lots of things I like about this tournament. First is its length. Five franchises, tournament done and dusted in less than a week, and all matches played at the same ground. This does mean that the vagaries of the weather could scupper the effectiveness of the tournament, but holding it at a suitable time of year should alleviate this problem, and indeed this years’ event only saw a couple of matches resorting to Duckworth-Lewis to get a result. I find the IPL in particular has become something of a behemoth, with endless group matches before the knockout phase. Sometimes shorter is sweeter.

More admirable is the commitment for each team to have at least one Associate player in their ranks, and more importantly for local development, one player from the Hong Kong Dragons, a local side made up of players with Asian descent. Not only does this allow players from Scotland, Ireland et al to participate, often filling in large gaps in their playing schedule, it also promotes growth within the native community. Often Associate sides are criticised for making up their teams with expats, so it is excellent to see an initiative designed to combat this.

The tournament was live streamed throughout and attracted over three million views on its Youtube channel, which far and away surpassed pre-tournament expectations. Streaming of associate tournaments is few and far between so to get to see some coverage for free was a great pleasure.

The Kowloon Cantons came away with the trophy in the end, but the overriding impression of the tournament I garnered was that the cricket was of great quality, and that the profile of the game in Hong Kong was on the rise.  If that enthusiasm could spread to mainland China we really could see the next cricket revolution come about in the next few years. Which can only be good news.

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World Cricket League Regional Qualifiers

When it comes to the lower reaches of world cricket, tournaments can be organised and played with very little fanfare and only the most fanatical of cricket supporters showing any interest, or even knowing that the games were on.  I found myself in the latter category when browsing the web last week to find that both the East Asia-Pacific and Americaa regions of the ICC holding their regional qualifiers for the next World Cricket League Division Five.

At the start of the current cycle of the WCL in 2012 there were eight divisions.  Citing financial pressures and the hope of providing more competitive regional fixtures for lower ranked teams, this has been reduced to five divisions after the 2015 World Cup.  Instead, teams in the regions are now competing against each other to get through to the lowest rung on the WCL ladder. Although reducing the number of divisions seems a bad idea, as teams at this level are already starved of fixtures, I can see from a logistical point of view that it makes sense.  Unfortunately the regions are very lopsided in terms of numbers, which means some tournaments are much more interesting and competitive than others.

The Americas tournament was played between just two teams, Argentina and the Cayman Islands. Between two continents only these teams outside the WCL structure could compete.  I’m not sure why, as details on smaller nations is scant at the best of times. I know Suriname have had recent issues with eligibility of players, but as for the rest of South America in particular, I’ve no idea.  Anyhow, in the ‘tournament’, such as it was, the Caymans won the three match series without defeat against the hosts. Argentina have fallen from the WCL in recent years and on this performance it’s a long way back.  But at least they made it – whatever is going on in the region it’s a sad indictment if only two teams can put forward a side.

The East Asia-Pacific tournament was much more like it – six teams and some competitive matches.  Vanuatu were the favourites, having being relegated from Dicision Five last year, so effectively they came straight back up again. Fiji were likely to be their closest challengers and so it proved, only a heavy defeat when the two faced in their final match denying them promotion.  The remaining teams in order of position were Samoa, Phillipines, Indonesia and Japan.  I must confess this was the first time I’d even been aware of these countries playing international cricket, so my knowledge is lacking, but great to see the strength of this region and the willingness of the teams to travel to Australia to play in the tournament.

As for when the other regional tournaments take place, I couldn’t tell you. Although the ICC are doing better with marketing the WCL, finding concrete info on these competitions is difficult.  They seem to be finalised with quite short notice, and Cricinfo only covers some of the games.  All credit to those who follow this level and keep the rest of us up to date on the goings on!

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Striking a Balance

As regular readers of ths blog will know I have been a strong critic of the ICC’s decision to reduce the number of teams at the 50 over World Cup to 10 from 2019.  This does nothing to grow the game outside of its core nations, indeed it strangles growth in markets where cricket could and should be thriving. A 16 team format should be the minimum for the premier tournament of our sport.

Meanwhile FIFA, soccer’s governing body, have moved in the opposite direction with their decision to increase the number of teams in their World Cup to 48 in 2026.  On the face of it I would be supportive of this decision, for it reinforces all the arguments for cricket – chances for smaller nations, an increase in prestige, more tournament prize money for countries to improve etc; but in this case, I think FIFA have gone a little overboard, and for the wrong reasons. FIFA’s reputation has been in tatters for years, even with a new president. So every decision they make will be met with suspicion based on their past indiscretions. This one seems more motivated by greed than a genuine attempt to help smaller countries. The extra revenue and sponsorship deals will swell FIFA’s coffers, and the different federations will be happy at having more participants in the tournament. But there are some problems.

Firstly. and this argument is used time and again in cricket, is that the quality of the competition would be diluted. I strongly disagree with this argument for cricket, but it may have some merit in football. Euro 2016 was expanded to 24 teams for the first time and was widely regarded as the worst tournament in living memory as a spectacle. A boring, defensive-minded team won it and there were few thrilling matches. Cricket doesnt have this problem, for the teams ranked in the lower half of the top 16  are very evenly matched, which would make their matches more competitive, not less. The second issue for FIFA is that the qualification process is demeaned further, with more teams from each region qualifying, which will again lead to boring, meaningless matches which are poor for spectators. As cricket isn’t meritocratic it doesn’t even have qualifying, so FIFA is a long step in front on this regards.

Worst of all is the format FIFA have decided upon – 16 groups of three with top two reaching the last 32.  Expect more draws in the group stages as teams play to safeguard from defeat rather than to win.  Even worse, there is talk that if two teams have identical records in the group stages then a penalty shootout will decide who progresses. This is not only a terrible way to organise who goes through, it strikes me as being open to all sorts of corruption too.

So there are all sorts of problems on the horizon if this format is approved. For both football and cricket, the structure of a tournament should focus on high quality product, a format that allows upsets but rewards consistency of play, games that allow the least possible room for corruption, fixtures that are best for players and fans rather than TV, and a tournament that doesn’t drag on forever. Both cricket in its current guise and this new format for soccer are not fulfilling these criteria. Two sports with completely different views on expansion but both unable to come up with a suitable format.

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