The changes to the structure of men’s fifty-over cricket which began with the announcement of a thirteen-team ODI ‘Super League’ in October 2017 have continued with the unveiling of a new model for the second and third tiers of the global game. In a move designed to bring greater stability as well as more cricket to Associate nations, the revised format, which begins in July 2019 as a replacement for the World Cricket League (WCL), will bring a significant increase in the number of fixtures as well as a pathway to World Cup qualification for the next nineteen teams in the world rankings.
For Cricket Scotland Chair Tony Brian, elected to the ICC Council Board as an Associate Member Director at the world governing body’s Annual Conference in June 2018, the ratification of the plans in Singapore last month represents a significant step forward in the future development of Associate cricket.
“What was announced in October is the end result of a lot of consultation and a lot of thought and a lot of careful analysis,” he said. “These plans had been under deliberation for the best part of a year and Scotland, in the form of [CEO] Malcolm Cannon and myself, were involved in the discussions at the Annual Conference in Dublin on what the shape of the competition structure for Associates might look like going forward.
“The genesis of it goes back to a survey of Associate members carried out around a year ago which asked how well the current structure was working and, if it was felt that it wasn’t, what kind of thing was wanted in its place.
“Two pretty clear messages came back from that. Firstly, that more cricket was needed because there wasn’t enough consistently across all the divisions, and secondly, that the present structure was too punitive. One bad match or week could see you plummeting down the divisions with very serious financial consequences, and that was something that clearly needed to be addressed.
“The aim was, then, to produce a much more stable structure which gave more cricket and didn’t have the same dramatic cost if you happened to have a bad day or two.”
The plans form the second stage of the ICC’s vision for the restructuring of the one-day game and provide further context for the Cricket World Cup Super League, unveiled in 2017. Due to begin in May 2020, the top division will feature the twelve Full Member nations along with the Netherlands, who qualified by virtue of winning the final edition of the WCL Championship last year, with the top eight teams gaining automatic entry into the 2023 ICC World Cup with the remaining five going into the Qualifier for what, at present, remains a ten-team tournament.
The seven teams directly below them in the rankings will now form Cricket World Cup League 2, where they will play three matches against each opponent at home and away for a total of thirty-six games over the course of the two-and-a-half-year cycle. In another welcome development, every game will carry ODI status, meaning that each team will be featured on the ICC’s ODI ranking table.
The potential benefits of the new structure, however, go beyond the nuts-and-bolts of its organisation.
“The thirty-six games will be played in chunks,” explained Tony. “There will be events where three countries will come together in one venue to play against each other, and the idea is that additional T20Is could be arranged around that. So while it guarantees thirty-six games of ODI cricket there will be T20 cricket added on and, depending on how the multi-day game sorts itself out, there might also be a multi-day game to play as well.
“It will bring people together to enable that to happen. Essentially, the ICC will pay for the costs of getting you there, you will then have to take on the costs for anything extra that might be arranged, but the net result will be more cricket for everyone at a significantly reduced cost.”
The teams ranked 21-32 at the conclusion of the WCL Division 2 in April next year will go into the Cricket World Cup Challenge League where, divided into two conferences of six teams, they will play a total of fifteen games over the course of the same two-and-a-half-year cycle. Following a play-off, two teams will then join the top three from CWC Division 2 in the World Cup Qualifier.
“It has been really well thought-through,” said Tony. “The ICC doesn’t get many plaudits sometimes, but the management of the organisation has spent a long time thinking and consulting and trying to come up with the best solution. It’s not perfect, nobody would say that, but I think that it’s the best that can be done with the finances that are available.
“The downside is that because the available budget is virtually the same, trying to give more cricket means that the number of countries that are involved has been reduced in total from thirty-six to thirty-two. That is sad but it was the inevitable consequence of having to work with a finite amount of money to deliver what the countries generally wanted. It is tough for the four countries that have missed out and we now have to find some way of making it an easier transition for them.”
Much of the coverage of the announcement has centred on the uncertain future of the Intercontinental Cup, with many interpreting the request for ‘expressions of interest’ in the multi-day competition as a blow to the ambition of any countries seeking Full Member status in the future. Within the context of the ICC’s Guideline Criteria for Full Membership, however, such a goal is still very achievable.
“How you became a Full Member of the ICC was for a long time something of a mystery, it’s fair to say,” said Tony. “But then, in 2017, the Full Council agreed a very specific set of criteria which, if met, allowed entry into Full Membership.
“There are two things which have happened as a result of that. Firstly, the necessity to play multi-day cricket as part of being a Full Member was de-linked. You can become a Full Member now and not play Test cricket, which is actually a very sensible recognition of the modern world. Test cricket is not the most popular form of the sport, there are probably only three or four nations who make any money from it, if at all, and therefore to expect new members to take on that obligation and that financial responsibility was deemed, quite rightly in my view, not sensible.
“Because of that, in turn, the I-Cup is no longer a necessary part of the journey to Full Membership and so it has lost its context to some extent. A number of nations who were playing it probably because they thought they had to if they wanted to become Full Members over time, have realised that they no longer have to, and, of course, incur the costs associated with it.
“The ICC is therefore looking to find out who is interested and then discuss how something can be managed, which will probably be on a cost-sharing basis because, having lost the necessity to fund to I-Cup, more of the money has gone back into the new structure to create more cricket. I supported that and I think that’s a very sensible approach.
“It does not mean the end of Test cricket or the end of anybody’s aspirations for Test cricket. Rather it is a sensible, rational realisation that a new Full Member might not want to play Test cricket straight away. They might prefer to get themselves embedded and sustainable and then, at a later stage, explore the possibilities of Test cricket if they have that aspiration.
“So the opportunity hasn’t been removed. It is just a more rational, thought-through approach that enables countries to reflect on it for longer in order to do what best suits their needs.”
While the ICC’s plans have brought them a deal of plaudits, the brickbats have not been far behind, however, as the controversial ten-team World Cup remains on the table for 2023. Behind the scenes, though, there lurks an element of Catch-22, says Tony.
“I’m completely against the idea of a ten-team World Cup as I’ve said before, but the thing I have to realise when I’m arguing the point, as I frequently do, is that if you move to a structure in which there are less guaranteed games for some of the bigger nations, particularly India, it means that the product is less valuable,” he said. “So if we argue for it to be a more meritocratic, fourteen-team World Cup, for example, the chances are that it will be worth less in the media market and as a result we and other nations would receive less money.
“So there is something of a quid pro quo. Sometimes it looks like the Full Members are ignoring what’s going on, but actually they are concentrating on other priorities, one of which is getting more money into the game. It may not be a priority that suits us, but you have to say that it’s a rational priority.”
How that money is then distributed will be the acid test, of course. But, by the ICC showing that it is now listening and responding to the concerns and priorities of its Associate members, perhaps playing a longer game will bring further dividends.