The Good and the Bad

Finally, finally, after after the level of procrastination and dithering that is the hallmark of the ICC, we have plans in place for a Test Championship and ODI league.  As you will know I have been a strong advocate for cricket with context, so this news is very welcome.

The main details are: The Test league will have nine teams playing six series over two years – three home and three away – with each having a minimum of two Tests and a maximum of five and all matches being played over five days culminating in a World Test League Championship Final. This means that marquee series such as the Ashes can still take place over five Tests, so this is a sensible move.  Best of all of course is that each series provides context, so there will be no dead rubbers as every Test will have longer-term meaning. This should improve the standard of play, with teams hopefully being more aggressive in pressing for victories rather than allowing matches to drift into tame draws.

Having three home and three away series is good news too. This will ensure fairness, as at the moment it is quite possible for a team to reach number one in the world rankings by virtue of playing more matches in a home environment, which massively increases the chances of winning.  With the first cycle running from 2019 to 2021 and then every three years after that, the timespan is short enough to get a clear idea of who the strongest teams are in the Test format, and having a clear winner is good for sponsors, and to entice crowds for the big matches, particularly in areas of the world where attendances are suffering.

The fate of the three remaining FMs remain unclear.  It would be a shame for Afghanistan and Ireland to be forced to play each other and Zimbabwe all the time, for example.  Trying to fit in matches against other FMs into the schedule will be very difficult. Another problem will be the likelihood of home teams producing pitches vastly suited to their strengths.  Home advantage is all well and good, but pitches need to be fair to both teams and most importantly, take spin as the match wears on.

The ODI league is based on sound thinking too – up to a point.  This format will be contested by the 12 Full Members plus the winners of the current ICC World Cricket League Championship. In the first edition of the league, each side will play four home and four away series each comprising of three ODIs moving to all teams playing each other from the second cycle onwards.

On the face of it, great.  Especially for those in the WCL, who now have a direct pathway to the new league and a chance at World Cup qualification.  The Dutch, who currently top the WCL, would get a huge shot in the arm for their domestic cricket if they could remain there when the first league begins in 2020.  My main gripe is that this agreement probably spells a ten-team World Cup for the foreseeable future.  I’d much prefer to see the main competition expanded to 16 teams with a similar qualification pathway.  Still, small crumbs are better than nothing I guess.

The directive I do have a problem with is the trialling of four day Test matches. Think of all the great Test finishes over the years and all will have been on the fifth day. The ebb and flow of a match, when four days can be quite staid then explode into life on the final day, will be lost. Four days will mean more declarations and the nuances of Test cricket will be altered. Supporters say that the number of overs a day can be increased to minimise the loss of the fifth day, but over rates are slow enough as it is and I can’t see them improving.

It also feels like a sop to the smaller FMs. The first Test to trial four days is South Africa vs Zimbabwe on Boxing Day, and all the talk suggests that without four days, the Test would never have taken place.  I wouldn’t mind betting that both Afghanistan and Ireland will be playing the majority of their opening Tests as four days, at least until the Test Championship begins in 2019. So there will still be a clear divide between the format of the bigger teams and those just starting out. This strikes me as unfair. Still, Dave Richardson has said that this is just a trial, so it will be dependent on crowds as to whether four day Tests become a regular part of the international calendar.

 

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WCL Division Five Review

Due to a change in the format, the latest round of the World Cricket League had even more riding on it than usual for the eight teams competing. In previous cycles of the WCL there were eight divisions, but the ICC have reduced that to five for this cycle.  The idea behind this was to give associate teams more regional tournaments to play in, thus saving money in the long-term by reducing travel costs.  So the eight teams who took part in WCL5 had either come through regional qualifying to make it (Ghana, Cayman Islands, Germany, Vanuatu, Qatar), remained in the league from the last cycle (Guernsey), or been relegated from the last Division Four tournament (Italy, Jersey).

The ICC billed this tournament as the first step on the road to the 2023 World Cup. This is technically true, although the amount of hoops a team would have to jump through to get there make it almost impossible. However, Afghanistan started at the very bottom only a decade ago and now they are Full Members of the ICC, which shows that it can happen. Oman are another side who have made great strides through the WCL in recent years so there is no harm in dreaming for these eight teams – the road is tough but you have to start somewhere.

The teams were split into two groups of four, with the top two sides reaching the semi-final, and only the two finalists making it to Division Four. The winner of the third-place playoff would remain in the division, and the remaining five teams would be relegated back to their respective regions. So even one defeat in the group stage could spell doom for any side.

The two relegated teams from Division Four were the pre-tournament favourites and so it proved, with both Italy and Jersey taking 100% records into the semi-finals. Group A was clear-cut, with Qatar taking the second berth ahead of Guernsey and a poor Cayman Islands team who ended up going without a win in the whole tournament. Group B was a lot closer. Jersey came through with no problems, but the final round of games had the other three teams fighting for second spot. In the end an extraordinary innings of clean hitting by Vanuatu’s Patrick Manautaava, scoring a 57-ball hundred to propel his team past Germany and into the semi-finals on run rate. I wrote in a previous post how I thought the Germans could be the next team to look out for so I acknowledge my mistake here for the record – having said that they were unlucky to miss out but such are the margins at this level.

Momentum is a huge thing in WCL cricket and Vanuatu and Manautaava showed why with a stunning victory over Italy in the semi-finals. Just the 83 from 60 balls for Manautaava this time and they won quite easily, with over 10 overs to spare. Italy’s collapse in the final overs saw them post a well under par total of 183 and Vanuatu chased it down with ease. Whilst Vanuatu deserve there success, I must post a criticism of the format. I think missing out on promotion by virtue of a solitary defeat is very harsh, particularly as Italy had the best record in the group stage. Perhaps a better format would be to have the two group winners play each other, and the loser gets a second chance against the winner of the third and fourth placed sides, similar to AFL and some other sports. With the current format the overall final becomes something of a procession, and by changing it up every game would still have context and would provide a reward for the group leaders.

Jersey negotiated their semi-final with ease, knocking off Qatar by five wickets. Their all-round strength and experience of the WCL format stood them in good stead, and they carried on to become Champions with an easy win over Vanuatu in the final. Italy continued their slump by being defeated by Qatar.  Relegation for a team once considered a strong presence in the upper divisions in the WCL shows how far they have fallen. A reliance on older players with no real signs of youth coming through does not bode well for them in the future.

Vanuatu now join Jersey in next years WCL Division 4 and leap into the top 30 in the world rankings for the first time. An exciting team who have given a further shot in the arm to the East Asia/Pacific region. For the rest it’s back to the wilderness of regional cricket, with no meaningful fixtures on the horizon. Such is the cutthroat nature of WCL cricket.

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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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