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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WCL Division Four Review

So, a couple of weeks ago I posted a preview of the WCL Division Four tournament which has just concluded in os Angeles. In it, I made the prediction that USA and Oman would be the two sides who gained promotion, and for a change, I actually was correct, with USA winning the final by 13 runs. USA appear to be something of a bogey side for Oman, who were also beaten by them in the round-robin phase. That victory was underpinned by an extraordinary century from USA’s star batsman Steven Taylor, and in the end the 2 points gained were vital for their promotion charge.

The best thing about WCL is the importance of every match, and how even within a match permutations change, resulting in teams altering their approach to a match situation as new possibilities emerge. This seesaw effect is particularly prominent in the final group matches, where a match result could spell relegation or promotion. As teams level on points are split by net run rate, the back end of these matches are signified by frantic calculations of NRR, which are constantly updated as other matches progress. It makes for extremely tense and very exciting play.

But first, how we got there. USA got off to a great start, winning their first three matches, but a defeat to Denmark on day 4 derailed their progress and left the final round-robin match against Jersey on a knife-edge.  Unfortunately the Danes, after two wins, suffered a shock loss at the hands of a Bermuda side reeling from two heavy defeats. This proved crucial, as they entered the final round at 3-1, the same as USA and Oman with the latter to play, leaving that match a virtual semi-final tie with the winner gaining promotion.

Meanwhile Bermuda followed on from that win with victory over Jersey, leaving them at 2-2 with only the winless Italy to play. So it came down to a straight fight between Bermuda and USA for the second promotion spot.

As it turned out, Italy put on one of their strongest bowling performances as Sandri and Crowley defended a reasonable low total. As the result came through that Denmark had been beaten by Oman, Bermuda knew that their NRR would be enough to keep them in Div 4 regardless of Jersey’s result against USA. So they ended up batting out their 50 overs, which was enough to secure their place. Denamark’s defeat also meant that the USA would finish 2nd if they scored 131 runs in their chase of Jersey’s 249, which meant we had something of a surreal situation where Akeem Dodson spent a few overs blocking the ball and running the odd single to ensure they reached the target without mishap. Once this had been accomplished they went for it – and smashed a few sixes on the way, but ended up falling one run short in a tense, exciting finish.

My predictions for the lower reaches of the table were nearly right, the only difference with Jersey suffering relegation rather than Bermuda. I was surprised Bermuda managed to bounce back from their poor start, but in Kamau Leverock they had a very destructive batsman whose sparkling century in round four hoped set off their revival. Jersey will rue some near misses, and Italy failed to produce a really good performance all tournament and succumbed to Division Five.

One note to add – I am usually quite scathing of the ICC but I felt they did a good job promoting this competition, at least on social media. Whilst it would be nice to have live streaming of the matches at least there were comprehensive highlights and interviews this time around. More of this please.

So USA and Oman progress to Div 3, to be held in early 2017 in Uganda. Canada, Malaysia and Singapore are their other opponents. A step closer to the 2019 World Cup but still a long way to go…


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WCL Division 4 Preview

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that Division Five of the World Cricket League was completed, with Jersey and Oman being promoted.  When it comes to this tournament, those who gain promotion have the momentum behind them as the next rung on the ladder comes along pretty quickly. For those relegated or remaining in the division, it could be nearly two years since they last played competitive 50 over cricket. Whilst I think the WCL is a great innovation and provides more exciting cricket than many a bilateral Full Member series, it does seem a shame that these tournaments are so few and far between for those who missed out last time.

Anyway, this round of the WCL is taking place in Los Angeles, starting this comng Saturday. Since the ICC suspended USACA, the governing body in the States, they have basically taken over the day-to-day running of the sport. Previously the USA entered tournaments underprepared and poorly coached, mainly due to the rank ineptitude of USACA. It is a different kettle-of-fish this time around though, as there has been an extensive selection process to choose a squad and the team have had some strong warm-up matches, culminating in the three match Auty Cup against Canada last week, which ended in a 2-1 win for the tourists. This, coupled with home advantage, makes the USA among the favourites for an immediate return to Division Three.

Oman would be my next tip to go up. Although only just promoted, they have more experience playing the top sides as they have T20 international status, and recently beat Ireland in a T20 match. Their 50 over form has been a little more patchy over the years but they have one of the best batsman at this level in Zeeshan Maqsood. He also took one of the best catches you’ll see in the aforementioned victory against Ireland. Their bowling attack contains plenty of spinning guile and looks to be dangerous for any team.

Denmark has a very strong batsman too in the form of Freddie Klokker, who has county cricket experience with Warwickshire. I actually saw Klokker bat for Denmark in the ICC Europe T20 semi-final, where he hit an astonishing 129 against Guernsey. It was a stupendous innings, full of clean, powerful hitting, and he can be a very destructive batsman once he gets going. The Shah brothers are the lynchpin of the bowling, and have the potential to cause problems. Expect them to retain their position at the very least.

Jersey were the other promoted side but have suffered a big blow coming into the tournament with the loss of Ben Stevens through illness. His all-round prowess made him one of the best players in WCL5 and his absence leaves a huge hole. Their young squad can build on the back of their recent success though and I think they might just have enough to stay up.

The other two sides making up the division, Italy and Bermuda, look the weakest. The latter seem to be in disarray, with a late injury to their vice-captain coming on the back of some poor performances in their warm-ups. Italy don’t seem to have made much progress since I saw them in 2013, and have picked an inexperienced squad this time around. I think they will fight Jersey to avoid the second relegation spot.

So, I’m going USA and Oman promoted, Denmark and Jersey to stay put, Italy and Bermuda relegated. Whatever happens it will be enthralling, high pressure cricket. The WCL always is.

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An Ending to Savour

The 2016 County Championship concluded overnight with an extraordinary finish to the final round of matches. I was up half the night, glued to my phone as updates came through. In the end, Middlesex took the title for the first time in 23 years after a contrived run chase came to a dramatic conclusion with a hat-trick from Toby Roland-Jones to deny Yorkshire. There has been plenty written about the way the match was set up, but I’ve not got a major issue with it. Both teams had to win to see off Somerset and claim the crown, so to not come to some sort of agreement would seem to me to be a dereliction of duty. Of course, serving up an hour of buffet bowling in order to manufacture a chase is never ideal, but to call it cheating shows a lack of understanding of the nuances of the game.

Having said that, it’s impossible not to feel sorry for Somerset, who have yet again been thwarted at the death. Their hundred plus year wait for a Championship title goes on. Chris Rogers had a stroming last match, scoring twin centuries in their destruction of Notts, but it still fell short. His retirement after the game ends a fine career. He made his presence felt in the South West and will be missed.

For me, the main thing to take away from the season is the continuing strength of the county game. The Championship coverage was the second most viewed on the BBC website as the matches reached their climax, it trended consistently on Twitter throughout the day and over 20,000 went through the Lord’s turnstiles over the four days. County cricket is much derided in some quarters, but the product is as strong as ever and its merits should be shouted from the rooftops. Funnily enough, the ECB’s new city T20 tournament will definitely erode the significance of the counties, and from next year the number of games in the First Division will be chopped to 14. Almost as if the game’s governing body in England don’t back their own premier competition as they should.

T20 has its place in the calendar and has revolutionised cricket for many. But pushing county cricket to the margins for it will alienate those who appreciate and love the to’s and fro’s of the longer format. A finish like yesterday’s is far more thrilling than anything T20 can produce in my opinion. So those who still have a fondness for county cricket – embrace it, sing its praises, and fight for it. It’s really worth it.

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The Olympic Argument

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last couple of weeks you will know that the Olympics have just concluded in Rio. Now when it comes to the sports that should be included, I have to admit I’m a little bit of a purist. A sport should be included based partly in order to grow at a global level. Individual sports such as golf  or tennis, which are already massive worldwide and have huge global popularity,do not seem to be the best choice for the world’s biggest sporting spectacle. Their stars are already household names and the professionalism of their sport is anathema to what the Olympics should be about, namely giving those from the amateur pantheon their moment in the spotlight. I appreciate this is a slightly archaic view as the Olympics continues to grow, but in my mind there are sports far more worthy of a place in the Olympic calendar which continue to be either overlooked or not pushed by their governing body.

Unfortunately cricket seems to be in the latter category. Cricket has not been played at the Olympics since 1900, which to me is a travesty. The game is crying out for global growth and only recently have the ICC been making murmurings in this direction. There are Ten full playing members and the sport has yet to penetrate to other parts of the world with any great fervour. An Olympic T20 tournament, with contributing teams from say the USA and China, would do wonders for the sport in those parts of the world. And it would be a good medal chance for four Full members unable to win a gold in Rio – India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Indeed, look at Rugby sevens: included in the Olympics for the first time, giving Fiji its first ever gold medal, and causing rapturous scenes of celebration in that country. What the Olympics should be about, and imagine similar scenes if a smaller nation prevailed in  a cricket tournament.

So why are the ICC reluctant? Well, there area number of reasons. One is finding time in the schedules for players to be released, the Olympics falling in the middle of the English summer. With a biannual World T20 back on the agenda, this would make it even more difficult to fit the Olympics into the calendar. Other issues – The BCCI has a fractuous relationship with its Olympic association due to government intervention. Another is that the playing conditions are at the moment unknown – would it be T20, mixed teams, Paralympics, something else? The length of the matches is problematic too – even an 8 team T20 would take up the best part of a week. These points have been raised by the higher echelons within the ICC and as yet nothing has been decided.

So all these issues look insurmountable, but to his credit, ICC chief executive is making noises about pushing for inclusion, rightly saying that cricket can never truly globalise without it. This should be the primary focus, and all the other issues can surely be worked out. And slowly some important figures are making the case, the MCC committee being a highly influential body pushing for a 2024 bid. I suspect that with the institutional nature of the ICC and their glacial progress on this issue, we will be waiting a long time. I can only hope not, for cricket will stagnate unless the Olympic question is resolved.

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