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Cricket news - Much ado about numbers

Barring a Super Over win in the second T20I, Zimbabwe had a rather forgettable tour of Netherlands

Away from the glitz and glamour of the World Cup a string of rather remarkable results in Associate cricket briefly broke into the news cycle this week. Of these, the most high profile was the Netherlands four-match ODI/T20I series against Zimbabwe, the two ODIs being the first ever to be held during a World Cup that weren't a part of it.

Zimbabwe arrived in the Netherlands hoping for a fresh start after a tumultuous 15 months that had seen them narrowly miss out on World Cup qualification in March last year, and then lose their captain, coach, CEO and most of their backroom staff in the recriminations that followed. Instead, they ran into an under-strength but fired-up Dutch outfit who duly made history, becoming the first Associate member to whitewash a Full Member in a multi-match ODI series. The first ODI was something of an ambush, Zimbabwe skittled for 205 with only Brendan Taylor's 71 offering real resistance, and the hosts chasing comfortably. The visitors came back strong in the second, posting 291-7 and then taking control of the game in the middle overs of the Dutch innings, reducing them to 167-5 by the 33rd over, but skipper Pieter Seelaar's cameo of 32 off 15 from number 8 wrenched the momentum back for the hosts and Scott Edwards saw them home with 4 balls to spare.

They came desperately close to repeating the trick in the T20I series, Roelof van der Merwe smashing a breakneck 75* from 39 balls to take the Dutch to 199 in the first match, setting up a 49-run win, before delivering an extraordinary final over in the second, defending 12 runs to tie the match despite being hit for back to back sixes by Elton Chigumbura off the first two balls, with three wickets falling on the final three balls only for Zimbabwe to snatch a consolation win in the Super Over tie-break.

Unsurprisingly, this has prompted a good deal of (in part justified) hand-wringing about the state of Zimbabwe Cricket, whose board was suspended on Friday by the Zimbabwe Sports and Recreation Commission as part of ongoing corruption investigations, with police stationed outside the Zimbabwe Cricket offices to deny them entry. Yet for all of Zimbabwe's travails, the series serves to underscore the narrowing of the gap between top associates and lower-ranked full members, even as the goings in England are arguably revealing a growing disparity between the strongest full members and the rest of the pack.

But if it's fair to say Zimbabwe have had a bad week, they are certainly not alone. Whilst an ODI series defeat to the Dutch is nothing to write home about, and neighbouring South Africa are having an equally torrid time across the North Sea, Africa's least successful international cricket team this week has without a doubt been Mali Women, who suffered a string of trouncings at the Kwibuka Women's T20 Quadrangular, held at Rwanda's picturesque new Gahanga Oval.

The Kwibuka (meaning 'Remembrance') tournament, now in its sixth edition, one of several such tournaments held in various sports each June to commemorate the victims of the 1994 genocide originally planned as a five-team event before defending champions Kenya were forced to withdraw at the last minute, unable to fund the tour in the midst of their own long-running administrative crisis, with players and staff all reportedly on "unpaid leave." It was the first time Mali had been invited to participate, and suffice it to say, it was a tough experience.

In their first match against the hosts, they were bowled out for 6, an unwanted record in T20Is. In their next, against Tanzania, for 11. Their third match saw two more records fall as Uganda racked up 314 runs - the first time 300 had been passed in T20Is, and then bowled Mali out 304 runs short. They lost by 216 to Rwanda in their rematch, making 30-9 from their full 20 overs so an improvement of sorts, but that would be as good as it got. Mali conceded ten times as many runs as they scored over the tournament, eventually finishing winless with a negative net run rate worse than 13 per over.

Mali's hammering at the tournament has likewise prompted a great deal of hand wringing, though of an entirely different sort. In this case, the pearl-clutchers in question do not seem especially concerned with the state of cricket in Mali, being in large part been entirely unaware that such a thing has existed for the last 20 years or so, but rather with the affront to supposed sanctity of the statistical record. Specifically, it is the ICC's decision to extend recognition and full international status to all of its members in the T20 format that has drawn the attention of these self-appointed guardians of statistical purity to a tournament that had previous passed largely unnoticed for the past five years.

Cricket retains a strangely precious attitude toward a body of statistics that is, comparatively speaking, both remarkably unsophisticated and rather haphazardly curated, reliant as it is on private media companies which occasionally show a disappointingly relaxed attitude toward errors in all but the most high-profile games and player profiles (the official scorers at the Netherlands-Zimbabwe series faced an uphill battle to have corrections made to online scorecards compiled off the video stream). Generally speaking professional teams have moved beyond simple metrics such as batting or bowling averages, or even relatively recent innovations such as strike rate or economy, yet amateur statisticians continue to find the labelling of such matches between national representative sides as "internationals" to be peculiarly vexing, even for the T20 format where internationals have not been the highest level of competition for some years.

The misplaced outrage nonetheless served to draw some degree of attention to a previously overlooked competition, and to the plight of minor associates such as Mali, who at least returned home with some much-needed kit, generously donated by the hosts. At least as noteworthy, however, was the continued dominance of Tanzania who went undefeated at the tournament, twice besting the more established Ugandans to cement their place in the top twenty of the ICC rankings.

Meanwhile a little closer to the World Cup action, half-way across the Channel on the island of Guernsey, a typically close-fought and competitive Associate tournament, the T20 WC Qualifier European Final, threw up a rather less remarked-upon, but potentially more problematic numerical oddity. With six teams competing for just a single spot at October's Global Qualifier in the UAE, the much-hyped Germany squad, who fell just short of qualifying for a place on the 50-over World Cup qualifying ladder but are regarded as something of a rising force in European cricket, mounted a spirited campaign to deny more established sides including hosts Guernsey, near neighbours Jersey, as well as Italy, Denmark and Norway - all but the latter regular contenders in the middle divisions of the old World Cricket League.

On the final day's play on Thursday it would come down to the last match of the tournament, with Germany facing favourites Jersey just two points adrift at the top of the table, but with a substantial net run rate deficit to make up. After some late hitting from Ben Ward saw Jersey post 134-5 in their 20 overs, the spreadsheets showed Germany would need to chase inside of 14 overs - more or less - to claim the top spot.

That 'more or less' would prove key, however. It is a curiosity of net run rate calculations that chasing teams can marginally improve their rate by finishing with a boundary and thus overshooting the target, that is to say, levelling the scores and finishing with six or four one ball later to finish with a total three or five runs above the target will yield a better net run rate than simply running two, as the extra runs over target are counted for NRR purposes. More to the point, for the fielding side if the scores are level it is advantageous to concede a single or even lose the game with a wide rather than risk a boundary and extra runs against them. It's not a situation that arises often, but it cropped up in Guernsey last week.

Craig Meschede and Michael Richardson's 44-run opening partnership got the German chase off to a promising start, but Jersey fought back hard in the middle overs, reducing them to 110-7 on the 4th ball of the 13th over, with 25 still needed. Former Afghanistan international Izatullah Dalwatzai got the Germans right back in it hitting three boundaries in four balls, but could manage only three more runs from the last four balls of the 14th. With five runs needed for the win, Germany could no longer afford to merely pass the target. They would have to level the scores and then hit a boundary. Consecutive fours would still do it, but Jersey found themselves in the perverse position that they could seal the tournament win by bowling five wides.

It was not clear that anyone on the field really understood the situation, and though Julius Sumerauer elected to bowl a very wide and full line, conceding two consecutive wides before Dalwatzai threw the bat wide after one to glance a four finish the game, it would have made more sense for Jake Dunford behind the stumps to let the first wide through to the rope to give Germany a one run win had Jersey been looking to take advantage of the arithmetic loophole, and indeed it seemed as though Jersey were far from confident that they had done enough at the end, celebrating only after officials confirmed that they had snuck through on a NRR margin of barely 0.05.

Nonetheless it is a loophole that needs closing, there being nothing to prevent the situation arising again, potentially on a much larger stage. Simply discounting runs over target for NRR purposes or awarding five penalty runs to the chasing team if the game finishes on a wide or no-ball would forestall a great deal of potential controversy. One might hope at least that the issue is brought swiftly to the attention of the ICC, and in that respect it may help that German opener Michael Richardson's father is none other than the current ICC CEO David Richardson.

The narrow tournament win sees Jersey through to the Global Qualifier to join Scotland, the Netherlands, Zimbabwe, Hong Kong, Oman, Ireland, hosts UAE and fellow-qualifiers Papua New Guinea, Namibia and Kenya, with three further spots still up for grabs, with one on offer at the Asia final in Singapore next month, and two more at the Americas final in Bermuda in August.

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