Following the dramatic conclusion of the 2019 World Cup at Lord's just four weeks ago, qualifying for the 2023 edition in India got underway to minimal fanfare in Aberdeen this week, as Oman bested Papua New Guinea in the inaugural match of CWC League 2, claiming the first victory under the ICC's new 50-over World Cup Qualifying structure.
Properly speaking, qualification for the 2023 World Cup in fact began back in February of 2017 at Bendigo, Australia with the first of five fifty-over qualifier tournaments where Vanuatu won the East Asia Pacific qualifier to claim a place at World Cricket League Division 5, the bottom rung of the old qualification structure. But the long-running World Cricket League competition was officially retired earlier this year to be replaced by a new three-division CWC League structure for the top 32 one-day sides, including for the first time, the ICC's 12 Full Members.
The ongoing trilateral series between hosts Scotland, Oman and PNG at Aberdeen marks the first competitive cricket to be played under the new system, which serves as a unified qualifying pathway for the game's premier event. Though unarguably simpler than the rather byzantine double-ladder divisional system of the WCL combined with the somewhat arbitrary ODI rankings table that together served as the qualification system for the previous edition, the new design nonetheless merits some explication.
In essence, the new format constitutes three long-term divisions running over 25-30 months, feeding into three decisive tournaments at the end of the cycle which determine which teams will feature at the World Cup itself, and where on the ladder each will start for the next iteration.
CWC Super League
12 Full Members + the Netherlands
8 x 3-match series per team (home or away)
Due to start early next year, the Cricket World Cup Super League will see the ICC's Full Members compete in structured ODI competition outside of global tournaments for the first time. The Super League replaces the ODI rankings table as the route to World Cup qualification for the 12 Full Member countries, joined by the Netherlands as champions of the final World Cricket League Championship, which concluded in Dubai in late 2017.
The new league will not replace bilateral ODIs entirely with teams being free to schedule additional series outside of the structure, but only scheduled league matches will count towards World Cup qualification. Constraints of pre-existing commitments, together with potential political obstacles, mean the teams will play against only eight of the other sides, each playing a total of 24 ODIs across eight three-match series – four at home and four away – over the course of the two-year league.
The fixtures were agreed by consensus rather than through a draw or weighted by ranking, and consequently, the teams will not all face the same strength of opposition across the competition, the West Indies and Sri Lanka, in particular, facing a tough draw, as do Australia. Nonetheless, the straightforward points table is arguably more equitable than the old rankings system, which countries could effectively game by picking and choosing their opponents. It is also considerably more transparent for fans, with the consequences of wins and losses (including for neutral games) more immediately apparent.
At the conclusion of the league in 2022, the top eight sides on the table (or rather the top seven plus India as hosts) qualify directly for the 2023 World Cup. The remaining five sides will contest the World Cup Qualifier together with five sides qualifying from lower leagues. The 13th-placed Super League team will also run the risk of relegation to CWC League 2 for the following cycle. Should they go on to finish below the CWC League 2 Champions at the WC Qualifier, the losers of the Super League will be replaced by the League 2 winners for the next edition. This relegation provision applies regardless of membership status, meaning all teams bar India are in principle at risk.
CWC SL #9, #10, #11, #13
CWC L2 #1, #2, #3
CWCQ Playoff #1, #2
Single venue tournament
Few details have yet been confirmed regarding the next Cricket World Cup Qualifier, though it looks set to mirror the previous edition held in Zimbabwe. As it stands it will feature 10 teams, the bottom five finishers in the Super League (or the bottom six minus India should the latter have a particularly poor run) together with the top three sides from CWC League 2 and the finalists from the CWC Qualifier Playoff.
The format will also presumably be similar to that of the previous edition. The teams will be divided into two groups of five with the top three from each progressing to the Super Sixes where they will play the three sides from the opposite group. The six teams will also carry forward points from their games against qualifiers from their own group. The bottom two teams from each group, meanwhile, will likely contest cross-over placement play-offs as at the previous edition. The top two teams after the conclusion of the Super Sixes will then contest the final, and as things stand, will be the only teams to qualify for the 2023 World Cup. The format for the World Cup itself has not yet been confirmed, however, so it remains possible that more qualifying slots will be on offer should the ICC dispense with the widely-criticised, exclusionary, ten-team format of 2019.
Unlike the previous edition, the next CWC Qualifier will be a full ODI tournament and will afford the winner of CWC League 2 an opportunity to claim a place in the next iteration of the CWC Super League, by finishing higher in the final standings than the bottom finisher from the 2020-22 Super League.
CWC League 2
Scotland, UAE, Nepal, Namibia, Oman, PNG, USA
9 x double tri-series per team (home or away)
One rung below the Super League, the remaining seven countries currently holding ODI status will contest the new CWC League 2. As the premier Associate one-day competition, the new league effectively replaces the old World Cricket League Championship, though providing considerably more cricket, albeit at the cost of the abolition of the old four-day Associates competition – the Intercontinental Cup. Whilst the old eight-team WCLC saw each team play a total of seven two-match bilateral series - three at home, three away and the final simultaneous round played at a single venue – CWC League 2 consists of a total of 21 trilateral series, where three teams play each other twice each, giving the participants a total of 36 ODIs over the 2.5-year course of the competition, 12 at home, 12 away and 12 on neutral ground.
The first of these tri-series got underway this week, with Oman defeating Papua New Guinea in the League's opening match at Aberdeen. Unlike the old WCLC, which was a mixture of ODI and List A matches, all of the games in League 2 will be full ODIs, the ICC having expanded the number of ODI nations to 20 ahead of the final games at World Cricket League Division 2 in Namibia in April. The six-team tournament in Windhoek marked the conclusion of the old WCL Divisional qualifying structure and saw Namibia, Oman, PNG and the USA claim ODI status and a place in League 2, joining Scotland, the UAE and Nepal who had secured their berths through their efforts at the last World Cup Qualifier in Zimbabwe.
At the conclusion of League 2, the top three sides will progress directly to the World Cup Qualifier, where the League 2 Champions will have a chance at securing a place in the next CWC Super League by finishing above the 13th-placed team from the current edition. The remaining four sides will have another chance at reaching the CWC Qualifier, dropping down to the CWC Qualifier Playoff where they will be joined by the winners of the two Challenge Leagues to compete for the last two berths at the global qualifier.
CWC Qualifier Playoff
CWCL2 #4, #5, #6, #7, Challenge Group A #1 Challenge Group B #1
Single venue tournament
The CWC Qualifier playoff provides a route for two sides from the CWC Challenge Leagues to reach the World Cup Qualifier, as well as serving as a repechage tournament for the bottom four sides from CWC League 2. As such, it occupies an essentially identical position to that of the first iteration of WCL Division 2 in previous cycles.
Though the exact format has yet to be confirmed, it is likely to closely resemble the round-robin structure of the old Division 2, possibly also featuring a round of final placement playoffs and a final after group-play concludes. With two berths at the WC qualifier up for grabs for the finalists; third and fourth likely winning a spot in the next League 2, and the fifth and sixth-placed teams probably both facing relegation (back) to the next Challenge League, such play-offs would be essentially cosmetic, as they usually were in WCL tourneys. In fact, the CWC Qualifier Playoff seems likely to be indistinguishable from the old Division 2, except in so far as the tournament has tentatively been accorded ODI status.
It is likewise possible, though as yet not confirmed, that a second edition of the tournament may be held after the Global Qualifier to determine places in the next cycle of League 2 and the Challenge League, as was effectively the case with the old Division 2.
CWC Challenge League
12 Teams, Two Pools
Pool A: Canada, Singapore, Denmark, Malaysia, Vanuatu, Qatar
Pool B: Hong Kong, Kenya, Uganda, Jersey, Bermuda, Italy
3 x six-team single-venue tournaments per group
List A Status
The most dramatic change introduced by the new qualifying structure is the consolidation of the lower divisions of the World Cricket League into the new 12-team CWC Challenge League. The Challenge League effectively replaces WCL Divisions 2 through 4 (the remaining divisions having gradually been cut over the course of the WCL's 12-year history) consolidating the lower reaches of the WCL into two parallel pools of six teams, which will each contest three all-play-all tourneys over the course of the competition. Each group will thus effectively play out a triple round-robin spread over three different venues over the course of the qualifying cycle, with the winner of each pool joining the bottom four teams from League 2 at the CWC Qualifier Playoff.
Though the six-team all-play-all format superficially resembles the old WCL Divisional tournaments, the fact that the groups are fixed for the cycle affords the participants greater predictability in their schedule. In the old WCL structure promotion and relegation would be at stake at every event. Though this tended to make for dramatic high-stakes cricket, it also meant that teams could not know in advance which or what number of tournaments they would have to contest in any given cycle.
The flip-side of the greater stability afforded the 12 Challenge League sides is of course that the system is closed to the 72 ICC members outside the structure, for whom qualification for the 2023 World Cup is already impossible. Whilst the double-ladder WCL system, where each division was run twice per cycle, afforded those teams outside the WCL to get a foot on the ladder by reaching the lowest division through regional qualifying once every two years, under the new system that opportunity rolls around only once every four years when the bottom four sides from the Challenge League compete with four qualifiers at the CWC Challenge Playoff to gain or retain a place on the ladder for the 2027 World Cup.
CWC Challenge Playoff
Challenge League Group A #5 & #6,
Challenge League Group B #5 & #6,
Four Qualifying countries
Single venue tournament
ODI Status unconfirmed
Participants in the next iteration of the Challenge League will be determined at the 2023 CWC Challenge Playoff, an eight-team tournament that will see the fifth and sixth-finishing sides from each Challenge pool compete with four qualifiers for a place in the next edition. Unlike the above competitions, the 2023 Challenge Playoff does not form part of the 2023 WC qualifying process, but rather affords the chance to gain a place on the ladder for the 2027 edition. In effect, it replaces the bottom Division of the World Cricket League, of which there were originally eight before the WCL was progressively reduced its final format of five divisions.
According to a hastily-retracted ICC press release last year, those four qualifiers will earn their place at the Challenge Playoff through the T20I rankings rather than regional qualifying, the four slots going to the highest places countries on the T20 rankings, provided their domestic competition includes "a minimum of eight unique teams playing a minimum of five 40+ over matches in a year over two previous years." The lack of any mention of regional qualifiers implying that there will be no other structured 50-over competition outside the top 32 sides going forward.