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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Florida Rising

In the next 24 hours the Caribbean Premier League will be playing the first of six matches at the Broward Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This set of matches, the culmination of the group stages of the tournament, will be the first meaningful fixtures played on American soil since the West Indies and New Zealand played a T20 match back in 2012.

Which is good news, and brings cricket back to an area the ICC have heavily invested in as a growth region for the sport. Since the suspension of USACA in 2015, the ICC have basically taken over the running of the sport in the USA, hosting combines to find and coach new and existing players throughout the country, and setting up advisory boards to work on governance issues and write a new constitution. It was their support that helped the CPL land these matches in Florida, and with a number of ICC Americas players on the rosters of the various franchises, this will be the first opportunity in a long time for American fans to watch national players on their home turf.

As usual, USACA provided some comedy moments by attempting to prevent the matches from taking place with a spurious claim that the CPL didn’t receive the correct sanctioning to host the event. Kenwyn Williams, former USACA secretary and village idiot, attempted to file a lawsuit to get the games postponed. This attempt was basically laughed out of court, particularly as Williams has no authority to practice law in Florida. This failure surprised no-one, for Williams has a long list of inept actions from his involvement with USACA, including an infamous social media tirade that revealed his narcissistic personality and paranoid conspiracy theories.  Still, having individuals such as this sniffing around the governing body of one of the largest cricket markets on the planet goes some way to explaining how the game has failed to take off in the States, and the lack of high-profile matches that take place on its shores.

Happily, those days are now behind us, with USACA facing complete expulsion from the ICC if they do not sort out their myriad of issues in the next 12 months. Hopefully a new phoenix organisation will rise up from the ashes, taking in the many good people who work tirelessly for the game over there, and rid themselves of the demagogues who currently run the ship.

For now, the CPL games will be the subject of interest. The stadium only has a capacity for 10,000 spectators, which hopefully in the long-run is going to be inadequate to meet demand. As it stands, today’s matches are struggling to sell but the double header on Saturday is virtually sold out, which is encouraging. Best of all is the news that the BCCI and WICB are discussing playing a T2o series in Florida after their current Test series, which would be a massive shot in the arm for the region. I hope that the CPL matches are well attended, exciting matches that are widely discussed and manage to capture the headlines in the local press. This would help the BCCI and WICB sit up and take notice and fingers crossed get their series set up. Wouldn’t it be great to have regular matches set up on the American continent? This has to be the aim moving forward.

 

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Inching Towards Context

As regular readers of this blog will know (if there are any), my consistent and main gripe with the cricket world is the lack of context with regards to Test Matches and ODIs. The latter has a World Cup every four years but because there is no qualification process for Full Members any ODIs between that time are basically meaningless bilaterals or knocked together triangular tournaments. Afghanistan and Ireland were recently added to the ODI rankings in an attempt to inject some element of context, as only the top 8 teams on the rankings qualify for 2019. This has little effect as both teams do not play enough ODIs to have a prayer of making it. SO there is clearly more that needs to be done, and recent noises from the ICC show they are finally starting to listen.

Two divisions in the test game has been talked about for ages. There have been numerable attempts to set up a World Test Championship which have always fallen by the wayside due to fixture congestion and an inability to agree TV rights and format. However the current proposal, up for discussion at the annual conference this week, is the most comprehensive yet.

Best news of all would be the expansion to twelve Test playing nations with Ireland and Afghanistan entering the fray. Bioth have been in the higher echelons of the Assocaite pyramid for years now  and desevre their chance. A second division of five teams would throw the noses of the West Indies and Bangladesh out of joint, certainties as they are for the second division, but this would encourage teams to better themselves and would definitely provide more context to Test series. If the cycle was worked out properly it will still allow room in the calendar for marquee contests like the Ashes and money-spinning series against India.

On the other side of the coin, the threat of relegation from Division One would sharpen a few minds and ensure that even dead rubbers would carry significance. If the structure works as it should then those in the Intercontinental Cup would haver the opportunity to play off for the right to join Division Two, which would be great as the pathway to Test Cricket would be open to all. The proposals are a little rough and ready at the moment but deserve serious consideration and I hope a proposal comes out after the ICC annual conference.

Their ideas for an ODI league deserve praise, too. A 13 team league played over three years with an overall winner and relegation to the World Cricket League are good steps. Unfortunately the identity of the 13th team reveals the ICC still have a tendency to ignore meritocracy if they are seriously considering offering Nepal the final spot. Nepal is one of the growth countries in Asia with enormous potential, but they shouldn’t receive special treatment because of it. Indeed, if the ICC did promote them that would almost say they have no confidence in the current structure of the WCL, which would be a grave offence to teams such as the Netherlands, who currently lead the table.

So, some tentative movements in the right direction. We shall see what comes out of the ICC conference next week, although I suspect nothing will be ratified straightaway. I watch on with interest.

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WCL Division Five Round Up

One of the recent decisions made by the ICC which may have slipped under the radar was their idea to reduce the number of divisions in the World Cricket League from 8 to 5. The reasoning behind this was primarily two-fold. First the cost of travel for the teams was very expensive, and secondly it gave individual nations and regions the opportunity to focus on the type of cricket they wished to play – to me this sounds like a subtle way to move teams towards the T20 format, but there you go. I guess for smaller nations T20 probably does provide the best chance of scheduling local tournaments and involving women and juniors in the game, something which is vital for development lower down. So the WCL Division 5 that has just finished in Jersey is now the lowest rung on the path to the 50 over World Cup in 2019.

The pre-tournament favourites were probably Oman, who recently made the world sit up and take notice with their performance in the T20 World Cup Qualifier with a stunning victory over Ireland. At this level playing at home gives an enormous advantage so Jersey would have been confident of sealing the second promotion berth. However the great strength of the World Cricket League is its unpredictability – playing five matches in a week means momentum and confidence play a huge part. Getting off to a good start is imperative.

As it happened the form books were correct, with Jersey sealing the crown with a win over Oman in the final. Oman remained unbeaten through the group stage but Jersey took revenge in the final with a stifling bowling performance. Oman’s progress was based on a batting line-up with more experience than the others and boasted the leading run-scorer in Zeeshan Maqsood. Jersey were well-served throughout by their all-rounders and make maximum use of familiar surroundings.

Guernsey and Vanuatu finished third and fourth respectively. The former retain their place in the division, Vanuatu joining the two African sides of Nigeria and Tanzania in relgation back to their regional qualifying events. The Africans struggled with the bat all week and were dismissed for under 100 more than once. Impossible to defend such a total.

So the victorious sides move to a very interesting Division Four tournament to be held in Los Angeles later in the year. The ICC have been running American cricket since the suspension of USACA last year and some semblance of organisation is starting to take shape, so I would expect them to do well. Two European Associates in Denmark and Italy should be there or thereabouts, and Oman could push on from their performance here. So a very open competition ahead! A country with the population of the USA should dwarf the other sides really, especially the island nations of Bermuda and Jersey. Just goes to show how poor the governance has been of that country in the last few years. Will be fascinating to see if things have changed.

 

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Windies Whitewash

Unless you’ve been asleep for the last few days you will know that the West Indies had one of their most glorious days in recent memory by winning both the men’s and women’s T20 World Cup on the same day, one after the other. After all the problems with administration and governance they have had over recent months this has come as a major surprise – certainly to this correspondent who failed to predict even a semi-final place for the men and nothing better for the women. In my defence I don’t think I was the only one.

To be honest the bigger of the two shocks was in the women’s final. As expected, Australia made the final and were looking for their fourth straight title and were clear favourites going into the match. When they  left the West Indies 149 to chase to seal the tournament, an enormous chase in the women’s game, I frankly didn’t give them a prayer. Just goes to show – 18 year old Hayley Matthews led the charge with a half-century and looked completely fearless throughout her innings. The carefree attitude of youth, I guess. Anyway a real shot in the arm for the women’s game with a winner outside of the usual. Would be nice to see the West Indies get the occasional Test match now, would be interesting to see how they go. The future looks good for them, regardless.

Onto the men’s, and for once I got a prediction right in suggesting England could go all the way to the final. After the first match it didn’t look hopeful, as they were soundly beaten by the eventual winners after a Gayle blitz, but from there they clung onto a couple of unconvincing victories before hitting their stride. It was a strange tournament for them in many ways as I never really felt that they produced a complete performance until the semi-final. Their group wins showed off facets of their game, either the bowlers masking over a poor batting performance or visa versa. The latter was exemplified by an extraordinary chase of 230 against South Africa, a record breakeer for the format. But the semi-final win over an unbeaten New Zealand, who had stormed their group with effortless ease, was when, like the A-Team, it all came together. A player who impressed me throughout was Chris Jordan, whose ability to bowl yorkers at the death caused problems for all the teams. He was somebody fighting for his place before the tournament after a few poor matches so to come back in the way he has is of great credit to him. Unfortunately our other death bowler had more misfortune but onto that later…

In group B India came through to face the Windies, who had won every game up to that point other than a final group match defeat to Afghanistan. They had rested players having already qualified but this was still a shock.  On a sidenote this was the first ever game between the two side in any format which shows the boring nature of the current way the game is set up. Anyway, other than that they made serene progress. India found it a little more difficult after losing to New Zealand in their opener, and much like England their victories were not convincing. Virat Kohli was invincible all tournament though, averaging a scarcely believable 136, which saw them through. Despit his heroics again in the semi, scoring 89 not out, the Windies got home with 2 balls to spare thanks to some brutal hitting from Lendl Simmons.

Onto the final then, and man this was tough to take for an Englishman, with Carlos Braithwaite hitting four back to back sixes off a hapless Ben Stokes in the final over to clinch victory. As an exciting finish, this was right up there. Poor Stokes has already been on the receiving end of some ‘Ben Chokes’ headlines in the English press which does the guy a great disservice, he’s a star. He just got the length slightly wrong and Braithwaite pounced. It was an amazing finale and all credit to the winners for winning what looked like a hopeless cause. Braithwaite will be remembered but Marlon Samuels anchored the innings after two early wickets and got them there or thereabouts. His post-match presser was pretty spicy too, having a pop at both Stokes and bizarrely, Shane Warne. There was a bit of indignation about this but I don’t really see why – both the objects of his wrath give as  good as they get and it’s all pantomime stuff, really.

So, another 4 years until the next one which is a shame. This format is the best way to grow the game and as such every two years, as it has been would suffice. Still, I’ve enjoyed what little of the matches I have seen (time difference makes it difficult, sadly) and from a personal perspective it’s good to see England make progress after the shambles of World Cup 2015. Congrats to the Windies, I’m off for a lie-down…

 

 

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