Scotland en route their victory over England at Edinburgh earlier this month © Getty Images
Scotland en route their victory over England at Edinburgh earlier this month © Getty Images

The neutral world loves Pommie-bashing. The neutral world loves underdogs triumphing against the odds and adversities. Scotland’s was such. It’s one of the stories of this month. On a sports-filled Sunday (June 10) when Bangladesh Women and Rafael Nadal created history, Indian football and West Indies had its rare glory moment, Scotland ruled the social feeds.

For the Scots, the pleasure wasn’t ordinary. It meant more than just a cricketing feat. Despite the brotherhood banner of Great Britain, the England-Scotland rivalry dates backs to many centuries and in the more congruent times it has graduated to sports.

Mel Gibson’s Braveheart painted on reel the England-Scotland relations in the medieval times. Some Scots rebuke the exaggeration in the film while some swear by it. But in unison, they enjoyed the English annihilation at Edinburgh that Sunday.

Football, inarguably, tops all popularity charts in sport. Head to head, it reads England 48, Scotland 41. In rugby, it is England 75, Scotland 43.

Calum MacLeod celebrates his hundred against England © Getty Images
Calum MacLeod celebrates his hundred against England © Getty Images

In cricket, it’s a shame that the neighbours have met only 5 times. Scotland had lost thrice in ODIs to England over the past decade. The Edinburgh win was their first. It came rather empathically as they posted their highest total in ODIs. Riding on Callum MacLeod’s 140 not out, Scotland pummelled 371 for 5 and bowled out the No. 1 ODI side for 365. The Braveheart show won all the Scots.

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Social media erupted. It’s often the one-stop destination for exaggeration. That night, Sunil Chhetri and Lionel Messi were being spoken at the same breath. Seriously. And the staunch anti 10-team World Cup brigade reacted as if they had witnessed the first ever cricketing upset.

The verdict was that ICC had been slapped hard. ICC, perennial villains of our sport, was being pilloried by fans and pundits for reducing the mega spectacle of the cricket World Cup to 10 teams and Scotland were missing.

It’s heartening to see the support flowing in for Associates, something they have vied for long. At the same time, it’s baffling that the world is going gaga over this upset and how they think that a 14- or 16-team World Cup will address the point.

As the week progressed, Scotland were reduced to nothing by Pakistan in the T20Is. England reassured their supremacy by pulling off consecutive convincing wins against Australia.

Afghanistan’s maiden Test took centre-stage. Their meek surrender to a second-string India inside two days got the pro 10-team World Cup supporters smiling.

For the other lot, ­ICC’s vision was deemed regressive when compared to FIFA’s. The football and rugby bodies are devising ways to accommodate more teams in their showpiece events whereas cricket has forcefully cut down.

The cricket world was divided between two sections: one believes the game needs to go global by adding more teams in the World Cup; the other calls it a game not suited for all.

The two factions have waged wars on media and social media without touching the real issue.

How will World Cup participation help the Associates, who have conveniently painted ICC a villain?

The real challenge

Rain had the last laugh at Dharamsala during the scheduled Netherlands-Oman tie in the 2016 World T20. A frustrated Netherlands’ skipper Peter Borren’s plea to the rain gods had made news then.

 

The challenge lies in the number of matches the Associates play and the number of the matches they play against top sides.

Afghanistan’s is an incredible story. They did not sulk at adversities and made the most of what they had. The Nabis, Rashids and the Shahzads have taken the sporting world by storm. The most prominent name out of the ashes is Rashid Khan.

Rashid, who belonged to an Associate team till not long back, holds the record of being the quickest to 100 ODI wickets (it took him only 44 matches). He is ranked first on the ICC T20I rankings.

But how many matches has Rashid played against a top international side? He is yet to play India, Pakistan, Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, England or New Zealand. He has played 5 against West Indies, more of forced affairs. Two came in the World Cup Qualifiers and three in a bilateral event where they were hosted by the Caribbean side, who had failed to qualify for the 2017 Champions Trophy.

That tells us a startling story.

Fans often cite Kenya’s example from 2003 of how an Associate side could make a difference in a World Cup. How many World Cup upsets have we witnessed in recent past from the Associates?

If we look at the matches since 2007 World Cup, only 6 out of 59 matches between a Full Member and an Associate have resulted in upsets. That’s just 10 per cent. Interestingly, Ireland has been part in all of them: a tie against Zimbabwe and wins over Pakistan and Bangladesh in 2007; a win over England in 2011; and wins over West Indies and Zimbabwe in 2015.

In 2014, Tim Anderson, ICC’s head of global development had said: “If they play well at the next [2015] World Cup they [the Associates] can put forward a case to say it should probably be more than 10.”

Ireland beat West Indies and Zimbabwe. Afghanistan, UAE and Scotland didn’t manage to beat a Full Member. Most often, just like the preceding editions, the matches turned out to be one-sided.

The Afghans did manage to give Sri Lanka a scare. So did the Scots when they put up a 300+ total against Bangladesh or pushed New Zealand while defending a low total. But such challenges were scant.

Dave Richardson, the ICC CEO, defends the 10-team World Cup: “The aim is to make the major events as competitive as possible. Every match should be very competitive and having ten teams at the 2019 World Cup will make sure that will be the case.”

Why Richardson is believed to be a popular antagonist across the cricket world is understandable but the sport is also about commercials. Too many one-sided affairs fizzes away the charm from the luscious can.

Does the above-mentioned percentage serve the cause? Weren’t the Associates given a chance to defend their point in the 2015 edition by beating the odds.

Yes, ICC did give them the platform at the crème de la crème but did nothing to ensure the bridging of the massive gapsin the difference of standards. ICC did little to prepare the Associates for the mega event. Let’s read Borren’s tweet again. Let’s wonder about the number of matches a Rashid has played against a top side.

A large section of the fans and even the Associates are fighting the wrong battle.

Why did Scotland’s Preston Mommsen retire from cricket to enter the corporate world? “What was there on a day-to-day basis to keep me motivated and keep me driven to want to keep going in the game? I was spending far more time on the training pitch and the nets and the gym than I was in between the stumps. As a professional cricketer, that was very frustrating,” Mommsen had told ESPNCricinfo after retirement in December 2016.

“That we haven’t played since the 2015 World Cup, a single Full-Member ODI, that just makes me feel sick, really. For us, going to the 2015 World Cup was a massive turning point in Scotland’s development and we performed respectably, and you would think that would be the platform for us to kick on and make use of that experience. But there’s not been the infrastructure that has allowed us to do that.

“For me, at this age, at 27, 28, 29, when you’ve learnt your game far better than when you had done when you were 22 or 23, you want to be playing as much as possible to maximise all the skills that you have learnt. So that has obviously come into [the decision] that I’m not able to capitalise on that at this time because of the lack of actually playing.”

For all the big UK brotherhood, why can’t England, a powerhouse, lend support to their struggling neighbours in terms of infrastructure and opportunities? We will come to that.

Earlier this year, during a brief interaction with Scotland skipper Kyle Coetzer at Hong Kong, I understood the plights of Scottish cricket. The harsh winter and the wet conditions up north denied the Scots an opportunity to prepare for the qualifiers outdoors.

Speaking on the gravest challenge, Coetzer told me, “Each side has different challenges. Afghanistan have theirs and we have ours. But it is about embracing that and trying to get through.

“For us it is very hard to hold on to our experienced players. The financial reason is the main factor. Cricketers take up jobs and explore other avenues before reaching the age when they start thinking whether this is really their career. It’s hard. Preston Mommsen is the latest example. He was at his prime of his career but he took up a job. We can’t complain about that. Our challenge is to produce quality cricketers as fast as we can.”

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Playing international cricket against top sides also acts as auditions for Associates players who barely meet ends by merely playing cricket. Perhaps they will be spoken of in some county club office or by officials in some franchises in IPL, BBL, PSL or CPL.

Not even all in their chosen best 15-member squads have central contracts. There are students, workers on leave or sabbaticals or ones just carrying on with a hope and burning desire. Unlike stars from the Full Members, these players don’t just have to worry about their show on the field. They are a part of the struggle for the team’s survival.

Yawns can be afforded in yet another insignificant India-Sri Lanka series. It’s India’s chance to test their bench. On the other hand, Scotland would have waited for the England tie even before the date was fixed. They would await the moment for someone like Virat Kohli to set a foot in their land, so that they can compete against him.

Trivia: Starting their international chronicles from 1999 World Cup, Scotland have played 154 international matches till date and only one has been against India, an ODI in 2007. Superstars Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly were rested for the match.

The general consensus for Associates is lack of matches against Full Members.

Imagine a Rohit Sharma or Mohammad Aamer playing Canada at Toronto. How good it would do the cricket landscape there?

Why can’t ICC ensure at least 10 international matches against Full Members a year to the top Associates? No doubt that there will be muscle-flexing against this decision by the plump boards. It will also be difficult for top players to squeeze time from their hectic schedules. But as a parent body, ICC should hold more authority to preserve the game’s innocence and not making it completely moolah-driven.

***

BCCI has encouraged Afghanistan to use its facilities. Other boards may follow suit. After Afghanistan’s shambolic show in their maiden Test, Kapil Dev suggested BCCI to allow Afghanistan to participate in the Duleep Trophy to improve their cricket in longer formats.

Isn’t that a step towards improving quality and helping Associates with better infrastructure?

Associates can participate in major domestic tournaments as per their geographies. Scotland and Netherlands could be a part of county tournaments in England (Ireland and Scotland did play in England). Nepal can play in India or Bangladesh and UAE in Pakistan.

It’s easy to draw parallels with football. France, ranked 7th, will have to play out of their skins against 19th-ranked Italy. In cricket, the gap between the 9th-ranked ODI side West Indies and the 14th-ranked UAE is huge.

A side like UAE should compete against the top 10 ODI sides more often to stand a chance of making a difference in the World Cup.

Ideal World Cup

Ideally, a World Cup should feature 10 teams. There should be a league where all teams play everyone else. The top four sides would qualify for IPL-style Playoffs in order to be fair to the teams that finished top two after an exhaustive and demanding league.

Trivia: New Zealand were by far the best side in the 1992 World Cup. With 7 wins from 8 matches, they topped the league stage with 14 points. Pakistan pipped Australia due to an abandoned game against England and scraped through to the semi-final with 9 points. One good day for Pakistan and one special knock from Inzamam-ul-Haq sealed the Kiwi fate.

Does that mean I do not want cricket to expand? On the contrary, I am a firm believer in the sport’s expansion.

Those following recent trends may think I am contradicting myself. The aforementioned points deal with the real challenges for Associates and possible solutions to help bridge the gap.

Now, the World Cup.

An acquaintance recently ranted out at me. Summarising the gentleman’s thoughts, “A 10-team World Cup is a stupid idea. It’s even stupider to support an idea that calls for 5 per cent of the world’s countries to participate in an event and call it a World Cup. Football and rugby, on the other hand, talk of expanding. World Cup is a showpiece event and it should include the strengths and weaknesses of the sport.”

However, to this gentleman’s club, a 16-team World Cup, i.e. around 8 per cent of the world, is acceptable. You can’t dare question the logic of individuals who get wavered by the trending wave.

Cricket has another world event, World T20. All 105 ICC member nations have been granted T20I status. A T20 game is usually a three-hour affair. Let there be 32 teams for the contest. But unlike a 90-minute sport, a 100-over ODI affair that lasts for a third of a day can’t afford to have painstaking one-sided affairs.

The first five days of 2011 World Cup saw these results:
– Kenya 62 in 23.5 overs, New Zealand 72 for no loss in 8.5 overs
– Sri Lanka 332 for 7 in 50 overs, Canada 122 in 36.5 overs
– Australia 262 for 6 in 50 overs, Zimbabwe 171 in 46.2 overs
– Pakistan 317 for 7 in 50 overs, Kenya 112 in 33.1 overs

For a format that’s sandwiched between Tests and T20Is and battling for survival, does it have space for these games in its premier event?

A World Cup must be a marquee event where the best clash and on display are skills of optimum level.

Detractors of a 10-team World Cup may question the guarantee of all quality matches in the said format. 1992 World Cup, for all its jazz and chic, was league-based and had several one-sided games. But then the argument is on similar lines with DRS isn’t 100 per cent conclusive.

The 10-team World Cup format at least maximises the chances of good games, ensuring all the matches are in synch with viewer and marketer’s demands.

Coming to the Associates and the weaker sides, there is a World Cup Qualifier in place. West Indies and Afghanistan made it through the Qualifier after an intensely fought battle. Scotland and Zimbabwe missed just about missed out. ICC failed to incentivise on this brilliant tournament.

Jos Buttler appeals for a stumping of Steven Smith © Getty Images
Jos Buttler appeals for a stumping of Steven Smith © Getty Images

September 30, 2017 was the qualification date for teams. Whoever finished in the top eight ODI rankings earned World Cup berths. The date is 20 months prior to the start of the tournament.

How have the teams fared since?

(ODI summary for teams from Oct 1, 2017 to June 18, 2018)

Teams M W L T NR W/L
New Zealand 15 11 5 0 0 2.2
India 13 10 3 0 0 3.3
Afghanistan 15 9 6 0 0 1.5
England 13 9 4 0 0 2.3
Ireland 13 9 4 0 0 2.3
Scotland 15 8 6 1 0 1.3
Pakistan 10 5 5 0 0 1
West Indies 10 5 5 0 0 1
Zimbabwe 15 5 9 1 0 0.6
South Africa 9 4 5 0 0 0.8
Sri Lanka 13 4 9 0 0 0.4
Bangladesh 8 3 5 0 0 0.6
Hong Kong 6 3 3 0 0 1
UAE 10 3 7 0 0 0.4
Papua New Guinea 10 2 8 0 0 0.3
Australia 8 1 7 0 0 0.1

Ireland, Scotland, Zimbabwe and Hong Kong haven’t qualified for World Cup. Defending champions Australia have the poorest win-loss ratio. Maybe there’s a fair argument here. Maybe the best 10 sides at the moment aren’t playing the World Cup.

FIFA World Cup defending champion Germany started from scratch in the 2018 edition and went through the rigours of qualifiers in bid to their title defence in Russia. So did the five-time World Champions Brazil. Four-time World Champions Italy didn’t qualify for the World Cup; neither did Netherlands, runners-up in 2010 and third in 2014.

Arjen Robben, one of the finest footballers in the planet, is missing the World Cup.

Were the big teams challenged enough to earn a World Cup spot? West Indies had to be terrible enough to go through the qualifier process.

How about scheduling the 2023 10-team World Cup with only the hosts and top two sides gaining direct qualification for the tournament? That way ICC can incentivise the best performers till the start of 2022 by allowing the top two sides.

For example, if this was employed for 2019 edition, only England (hosts), South Africa (No. 1 ODI side at end of September 2017) and India (No. 2 at the same point) would have secured direct qualification. On the other hand, Australia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Bangladesh would have joined the other nations for Qualifiers.

There lies ICC’s chance to create another tournament of utmost significance, interest and revenues. It presents a fair opportunity to all. An ideal cricket World Cup isn’t rocket science.