After months if not years of uncertainty, a typically bland press release from last week’s meetings in Singapore at last revealed the future shape of international 50-over cricket for the overwhelming majority of the ICC’s members. And broadly speaking, the news was good.
Though presented merely as a qualification pathway for the 2023 World Cup in India, the new competition structure for the ICC’s top 20 Associate members will in fact constitute to preponderance of international cricket they will likely play for the next few years, and the most important take-away is that there will be substantially more of it. So long as the World Cup itself remains a ten-team affair, the status of the new competitions as a notional route to qualification for that tournament will probably be seen as academic for most participants, but nonetheless they will undoubtedly welcome the comparative abundance of fixtures the new format will bring.
Those hoping Singapore might play host to a rethink on the controversial reduction of cricket’s flagship tournament from 14 to 10 teams were always likely to be disappointed, though the inclusion of three little letters – 10 teams “TBC” (to be confirmed) may yet give them cause for optimism. The main business of the meeting was not to reconsider that decision however, but rather to revamp the qualifying structure for the tournament, a role previously served by the much-lauded divisional World Cricket League, now replaced by three leagues, dubbed the CWC Super League (in which the 12 Full members and the Netherlands will participate), CWC League 2 (which effectively replaces the WCL Championship) and the CWC Challenge League (which replaces WCL Divisions 3-5).
The former World Cricket League, which served as the main qualification ladder for previous three World Cups, was based on a series of (usually six-team) tournaments at a single venue, with top teams gaining promotion to a higher division and bottom teams relegated to the division below. These divisional tournaments, of which there were initially eight, were run twice per qualifying cycle. The first ladder offered a route to the World Cricket League Championship – the multi-year league for the top eight Associates – and the second provided a second chance to progress to the ICC World Cup Qualifier.
The new format essentially replaces the World Cricket League Championship with the new “CWC League 2” but instead of eight sides playing one another in two-match series either at home or away over the course of 2.5 years, the new League will have seven participants who will play each other in three-match series both home and away, meaning each will see their total fixtures rise from 14 to 36. The league has also been accorded ODI status, meaning that in effect the number of ODI-playing countries will be increased from 16 to 20. Whether the four qualifiers for the league will themselves gain ODI status for any other bilaterals is as yet unclear however, and indeed it could be that the ICC is moving toward a system of status-by-tournament rather than by country. The top three teams from this competition will progress directly to the World Cup Qualifier tournament, where they will be joined by the bottom five teams from the new Full Member ODI league.
The Netherlands, as champions of the 2015-17 edition of the WCLC, won elevation to this first “CWC Super League” which will see them play eight three-match series against Full Member opposition. In part due to other demands on the schedules of Test-playing nations and in part due to political obstacles to India-Pakistan bilaterals, participants in the Super League will not play against all 12 of their competitors, but nonetheless the 24 bilateral ODIs against top-flight opponents that the Dutch can look forward to is more than they have played in their history, and a chance at direct qualification for the World Cup if they manage a top eight finish. Given the competition that is of course a tall order, but compared to the effective impossibility of qualifying through rankings as in the past, the straightforward points table of the CWC SL at least affords the chance.
The most eye-catching change, however, is the effective merger of WCL Divisions 3-5 into the new CWC Challenge League, a 12-team competition split into 2 pools, each of which more closely resembles the old WCL Championship than the old divisional tournaments. The exact format for the two parallel leagues was not specified, but in all likelihood they will follow the mould of the WCLC, with teams playing a 3-match series against each of their opponents either at home or away, to give 15 fixtures over the course of just over two years. Whilst that may not seem an imposing schedule, it nonetheless constitutes a significant improvement on the status quo ante for most of the teams, who might play as few as five competitive matches (all concentrated in the space of a week) over such a period under the old structure.
The winners of each pool will join the bottom four from CWC League 2 in what is dubbed as the “CWC Qualifier play-off” - functionally equivalent to WCL Division 2 – to compete for the two remaining berths at the CWC Qualifier. The bottom-placed teams from each group meanwhile, will be relegated to the “CWC Challenge play-off” about which no further details were made available but would presumably play the same role as the current Division 5, where regional qualifiers compete with the lowest-ranked WCL sides for a rung on the next global qualification ladder.
Boredom punctuated by terror?
The overall effect of the changes, beyond generally increasing the amount of international 50-over cricket for top Associates, is to establish periods of comparative predictability in the schedules of mid-ranked Associate sides. One of the defining features of the lower echelons of the WCL in the past was long periods of inactivity punctuated by extraordinarily high-pressure tournaments where the future trajectories, funding and sometimes careers of participating teams were decided in the space of a short fortnight – exciting for fans, but frustrating for boards looking to build toward the future. The extended and expanded schedule of the Challenge League will go some way toward alleviating that pressure, and give those teams ranked 21 to 32 some assurance and clarity as to what their schedules will look like ahead of time.
The frenetic panic of the old WCL format will not be entirely consigned to the past however, indeed the difference between the dizzy, full-member-playing heights of the Super League, the 36-ODI bonanza of the League 2, the comparative stability of a berth in the challenge league and the uncertainty of what is on offer for the 74 Associates not included in the structure only ups the stakes for the feeder tournaments that will decide who ends up where.
The two final World Cricket League tournaments still to be played, Division 3 in Oman next month and the as-yet-unscheduled Division 2 next year will decide which four teams join Scotland, the UAE and Nepal and in League 2 and which will be consigned to the Challenge League. If anything the new format will only increase the pressure on the teams taking part. Similarly, the future Challenge and Qualifier play-offs will likely follow the old WCL template both in format and in ferocity of competition, with more on the line than ever before.
There remain a number of unanswered questions however, both regarding this qualifying cycle and the next. The biggest of course is the format of the World Cup itself. The exclusion of more than 90% of the ICC’s members from its premiere 50-over event remains controversial, and the caveat “TBC” hints that the decision might yet be revisited. A realistic hope of winning through to the big stage would certainly add a great deal of interest to what for many is otherwise a qualification pathway in name only. At the other end of the table, there’s a question of how the bottom end of the Challenge League will be filled first time round, as technically the new hierarchy calls for 19 teams and there are only 18 remaining in the World Cricket League, with the bottom five sides from Division 5 having already been relegated to regional qualifying. It’s possible that Italy, as the best-ranked of the five, may be granted a reprieve, alternatively there’s still plenty of time for a qualifying tournament.
The next cycle of qualifying, that is for the 2027 World Cup, is still more unclear. As yet there is no word on how promotion or relegation between the tow associate leagues and the Super League will be handled. Given what’s at stake for the teams in question, going on simply on final standings at the Qualifier as in the past would seem arbitrary in the extreme, and rather undermine the objective of giving associates more stability and predictability year on year. Given the compression of the qualifying cycle into three concurrent leagues running for about 2.5 years, one imagines there would be room enough in the schedule to find a better way.
A more immediate question however is a largely separate one, namely the future of multi-day cricket for Associate Members. The equivocation regarding the future of the Intercontinental Cup - the Associate First Class competition that ran in parallel to the WCLC – is probably the most ominous information to emerge from the meeting. The tournament has long been seen in some quarters as something of a money-sink, being comparatively expensive to run and benefiting only the very top flight.
Though barely over a year ago the 4-day league was held up as the “pathway to test cricket” the elevation of Afghanistan and Ireland to Full Membership and subsequent scrapping of the “Test Challenge” suggested that some in Dubai saw the competition as having served its purpose. For those left behind, most obviously Scotland, the loss of what remained the most obvious stepping-stone to Test Status would be a grave blow. The door apparently remains ajar, with the ICC willing to consider “expressions of interest” from members “who are keen and committed to playing the multi-day format” to collaborate on a new multi-day competition on a “cost-sharing” basis.
Given that even in Full Member countries the longest form of the game barely survives without cross-subsidy from white ball formats, it is difficult to see many cash-strapped Associates prioritising the red ball game if the financial burden is too onerous. Without the Intercontinental Cup, it would have been hard to imagine Afghanistan or Ireland making their case for Full Membership, and should it wither away they may be the last to do so.
Though such concerns should not obscure the fact that the situation for most Associates is today markedly better than it was a week ago, there is little to suggest a fundamental shift in the clubbish, closed-shop attitudes of established Full Members. And at the end of the day, a plush new waiting room is meagre consolation in the face of a locked door.