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It’s time to put the World in the World Cup

Namibia beating Sri Lanka and Scotland upstaging West Indies would have thrilled the cricket romantics rooting for the underdogs. But these upcoming teams, sometimes derogatorily termed 'minnows', have a long road to travel before mixing it with the big boys.

Namibia defeated Sri Lanka, while Scotland upstaged West Indies in the ongoing T20 World Cup. (PTI)

Results on the first two days of the T20 World Cup have proved the virtue of giving an opportunity to a larger number of teams on the big stage, rather than confining the big events to the traditional big guns.

Namibia beating Sri Lanka and Scotland upstaging West Indies would have thrilled the cricket romantics rooting for the underdogs. But these upcoming teams, sometimes derogatorily termed ‘minnows’, have a long road to travel before mixing it with the big boys. Only a few make it.

For example, United States were just one win away from qualifying for the 2022 T20 World Cup. They were among the eight sides that had qualified for the global Qualifiers based on performance in regional tournaments. They won two of their three games to reach the semifinals. A win would’ve taken them straight to Round 1 of the T20 World Cup in Australia. But they lost to the Netherlands by seven wickets.

Even though they will feature in the 2024 edition of the tournament as co-hosts alongside Cricket West Indies, USA – much like other Associate nations – can look to only one format for an opportunity to feature on the biggest stage. T20 cricket has democratised the game more in less than two decades than ODI and Test cricket managed to do in all the years previously. And the proof was visible on the first two days of the T20 tournament.

In April 2018, ICC granted T20I status to 104 Associate nations, a first in the game’s history. Only 22 teams had played a T20 International till then. Since then, 72 more have done so.

The teams playing in the ODI World Cup have been reduced from 16 in 2007 to 10 in 2019, with the qualifiers only allowing West Indies and Afghanistan to feature in the main event. But as far as the T20 World Cup is concerned, while the number of teams playing in the tournament has only gone up from 12 in 2007 to 16 in 2022, as many as 28 sides were involved in regional qualifiers across Africa, Americas, Asia, East Asia-Pacific and Europe.

Apart from opportunity, finances and lack of familiarity are other constraints confronting Associate nations from pursuing other formats of the game.

“A country like Germany is not allowed to play official ODI cricket, and definitely not Test cricket. So, the only thing that’s left is to play T20Is,” German Cricket Federation CEO Brian Mantle told The Indian Express last year.

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“The other thing is, we don’t have money. If you play ODI or Test match cricket, it takes a lot of time. And if we are going to become exciting for German people, who don’t know cricket, they are not going to watch a Test match for five days. They need a short, fast, interesting game.”

Through T20, cricket has trimmed itself to a more viewer-friendly timeframe, with the ICC stipulations requiring an innings to be no longer than 85 minutes, making for an overall playing time of under three hours. It may not keep a clock on display and run by it like in football, but with teams getting penalised for crossing the time limit, cricket is taking measures to abide by time.

Further, after its return at the 2022 Commonwealth Games and its bid to be part of the 2028 Olympics, the ICC has made it clear which format they are counting on when it comes to spreading the gospel of cricket.

The double qualification process not ideal

Even if the United States had managed to defeat the Netherlands and qualify for the T20 World Cup, it would’ve taken them almost another round of qualifiers before playing the big boys of international cricket.

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The current format of the tournament allowed Afghanistan, Australia, Bangladesh, England, India, Pakistan, New Zealand and South Africa to go directly to the Super 12 phase, based on their performances in the 2021 tournament and their rankings on the day after the conclusion of the last edition. On the other hand, the four teams that progressed via global qualifiers (the Netherlands, Zimbabwe, United Arab Emirates and Ireland) have been grouped alongside Namibia, Scotland, Sri Lanka and the West Indies in two separate groups for Round 1. The top two teams from each group will qualify for the Super 12s (groups of six each), from where the top two in each pool will advance to the semifinals.

Even though the teams participating in the World Cup qualifiers are more varied than ever, there’s still a long way for them to tread before even thinking about the late stages of the competition. On the other hand, the format allows some of the big powers a much better chance to make it into the final four and have a shot at the title.

It is only fair to think of mandatory qualifiers for all the teams involved, barring maybe the hosts, if cricket is to make itself more inclusive. The existential questions have been asked of bilateral series and the space that can be afforded to them in the cricketing calendar. Why not turn them into qualifiers for every team, raising the stakes? The ICC has already put a Super League in place to decide the teams for the next ODI World Cup, and T20 may also go that way.

The possibility of a randomly-set India-Pakistan meeting for the one remaining slot in the T20 World Cup would add more excitement and anticipation than the now-routine first meeting year after year at various global tournaments.

A page out of the football playbook wouldn’t hurt. A total of 206 teams began the qualification process to decide the 31 that would join hosts Qatar at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Crowned European champions less than a year ago, Italy failed to make it after conceding in the 92nd minute to North Macedonia, who were ranked 67th in the world at that stage.

The T20 World Cup may be decades away from such a scenario, given the disparity between the top sides and those below. The tournament seems even farther from featuring 32 teams. However, the chaos generated on the first two days of the 2022 edition and the element of surprise were something the sport desperately needed to add the ‘World’ in the World Cup.

In this context, the words of former Scotland captain Kyle Coetzer resonate well, especially after what Namibia and Scotland achieved on successive days.

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“2 previous @T20WorldCup champions playing in the qualifying rounds & both lose to associates @CricketScotland & @CricketNamibia1! It seems the skill gaps are narrowing despite the widening of the gaps for fair opportunity & funding! Time to split the pie a bit more?,” the 38-year-old wrote on Twitter.

First published on: 18-10-2022 at 07:57 IST
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