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Cricket news - T20 WC Qualifier: ICC's best tournament; could be better, could be gone

PNG secured qualification to their first ever senior World Cup

The T20 WC Qualifier, the 14-team global qualifying tournament that sits atop the ICC's expansive new pathway structure for T20 cricket, is arguably the game's most exciting, gruelling, and high-pressure event. It is unquestionably the best-designed, probably the most under-exposed, and the sixth edition, concluded on Saturday in Dubai, was the most closely-contested to date. It may also be the last.

From the opening match - where an unfancied Singapore shocked pre-tournament favourites Scotland in a thrilling, last-ball upset victory - all the way through to the final - where a resurgent Dutch side, who had come into the tournament with a record of just two wins from their twelve previous T20Is, bested surprise finalists Papua New Guinea to claim the trophy - the tournament remained unpredictable, high-tempo and enthralling. The intense schedule of 51 matches spread across five venues, crammed into the space of a fortnight and played in temperatures approaching 40 Celsius, was not only a brutally demanding test of endurance for the teams involved, but also a remarkable feat of organisational logistics on the part of the surprisingly small ICC contingent running the show.

Despite the absence of two ODI countries in the United States and Nepal, both of whom fell short in regional qualifying, and ICC Full Member Zimbabwe, whose administrative suspension was lifted too late to stop them, missing the tournament - leaving Ireland as the sole Test-playing country at the qualifier, the quality of cricket and competitiveness of the field was remarkable. Irish captain Gary Wilson, whose side finished third behind Papua New Guinea and the Netherlands after an unconvincing campaign, said "It's been the highest standard in a World Cup Qualifier that I've seen - that's without doubt." And he should know. Wilson is one of just a handful of players to have featured in every single edition of the tournament since it was first held in 2008.

It's a testament to the growing depth and competitiveness of the field just below the top ten that only two sides went through the tournament without registering a win. Bermuda, surprise qualifiers from the Americas region, looked disorganised and fractious, changing captains mid-tournament and lost heavily to all but Singapore, though Kamau Leverock's efforts throughout saw him emerge from his famous uncle's sizeable shadow. Nigeria, meanwhile, who were 11th hour replacements for suspended Zimbabwe, were not expected to be competitive, their third-place finish in the Africa regional final, in part the result of a little luck with the weather, but nonetheless showed a degree of raw promise that bodes well for the emergence of a potential new power in African cricket.

On the final day of group play, eleven of the 14 teams were still in with a shot at qualifying, more than half still had at least an arithmetic chance of topping their groups. Remarkably, there was not a single dead game in the tournament and only two where one side had already been eliminated from contention. While the frenetic final day of the group phase that kept the net run rate spreadsheets running hot almost to the last ball is in part a testament to the narrowing talent gap in Associates cricket, it is at least as much a testament to the quality of the format that ensured every game in the tournament would matter.

The Format

The ICC's pinnacle events in both 50 and 20-over cricket have been quite correctly slated for their unimaginative, exclusionary and simply poorly thought-out formats, the 50-over World Cup's for its interminable, meandering, month-long group stage, and the T20 event for the contrived, tacked-on "First Round" qualifying stage that is barely recognised in the broader media (or even by the teams participating in it) as even belonging to the event proper. By contrast, the T20 Qualifier stands out for its innovative and indeed ingenious format design. With six qualification spots up for grabs, it may have seemed more straightforward to simply award the berths to the top three finishers in each group, and run knockouts from there, but such a simple cut-off would have the effect of seeing the best performing teams quickly safe, as well as increasing the chances of sides dropping out of contention or securing qualification as a result of the outcome of neutral games. Whilst such eventualities cannot be entirely eliminated in a round-robin format, the triple cut-off employed by the qualifier goes a long way toward ameliorating them.

With the top team from each group going straight to the semi-finals and thus guaranteeing qualification, the better sides could not afford to coast on early results. Likewise, the distinction between the second and third-placed sides - who progressed to qualifying quarter finals and effectively won two shots at qualification, and the fourth-placed sides - who had just a single chance in the eliminator matches against the losers of the aforementioned qualifying quarters - meant that the mid-table was likewise closely contested, and even those teams that had a poor start to the tournament could recover to qualify, as Hong Kong very nearly did after losing their first three games.

The format, though slightly more complicated than some alternatives, is practically a perfect fit for the purpose of finding the six strongest teams in the field, whilst laying the stage for some memorable narratives, and continuously increasing stakes up to the decisive qualification matches. The semi finals and final, as is often the case in Associate competition, act more as a denouement than a climax. With all the sides involved having secured qualification, there is rather less riding on the outcome of these matches. Nonetheless, the opportunity to bring home some silverware clearly meant plenty to the sides involved, and both semi-finals and the eventual final - where the Dutch revenged themselves for their group-stage loss to Papua New Guinea - were contested with no less intensity, if perhaps with rather more freedom.

All told, the design for the Global T20 Qualifier is probably the closest thing to a faultless format that the ICC has yet produced.

As a showcase

Though the falling cost of internet broadcasts and the ICC's gradual relaxing of prohibitions on boards live-streaming their games in ICC competition has meant an increasing amount of Associates cricket is available to watch if one knows where to look, the T20 WC Qualifier, along with the 50-over equivalent, remains on of only two principally Associate tournaments to be carried by major broadcasters across the world. As such the tournament serves as a crucial showcase of the Associate game, being one of the few points in the calendar where when sides outside the top flight can take centre stage, break into news cycles, and capture the attention of casual fans and, potentially, T20 franchise scouts.

In this respect too, the 2019 edition was a success, albeit a qualified one. The quality of the cricket on show, and the closeness of the competition, will certainly have burnished the Associate brand in general, while several of the more spectacular performances and plays made their way around the world in the form of viral video clips. Such stand out moments - two impossibly brilliant leaping, one-handed, reverse-grip catches from Namibia's Gerhard Erasmus and UAE's Rameez Shahzad, Jatinder Singh's switch-hitting acceleration at the back end of a near-perfect T20 innings against Hong Kong, Bilal Khan's inswinging yorkers, JJ Smit's effortless hitting against Oman, the Dutch seamers' exhibition of pace bowling as they tore through the UAE top-order, and the evergreen Ryan ten Doeschate's masterclass in against Ireland - were seen by millions. Yet as many such moments were passed over. Logistics and limited budgets again dictated that the tournament, like the previous edition and indeed the 50-over Qualifier, was broadcast only in part. As a result, viewers were denied the chance to watch Singapore last-ball win over Scotland, or to see Norman Vanua's hat-trick against Bermuda, Navin Param's brutal, unbeaten 72 against Bermuda or Kamau Leverock's spectacular one-handed take to dismiss Aritra Dutta in the same game.

With almost half the games at the tournament being played off-camera, there was always a risk that the narrative of the tournament, and indeed the entire qualification process that stretches back to the first Sub-Regional qualifier in Buenos Aires in early 2018, would be rather lost on all but the most dedicated Associates fans. So it would prove, though the failure in this regard might easily have been avoided. As it was, with only those matches hosted at Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi being broadcast for the initial stages of the tournament, it would have been possible to watch several hours of coverage of Group B matches without ever being made aware there was another (unbroadcast) Group being contested at Dubai. Similarly, only occasional mention was made of the regional finals that fed into the tournament, invariably shorn of any context, and the expansive sub-regional structure below went almost entirely unremarked upon. The lack of clarity on the context and structure of the tournament was perfectly encapsulated by the fact that the producers finally produced a graphic purporting to show the structure of the tournament only on the penultimate day of competition, and even then it was entirely wrong.

Given that the context of competition in Associates cricket's most valuable "unique selling point," the general, the apparent lack of preparation and awareness on the part of the TV production team and, to an extent, the commentators themselves, did a disappointing disservice to the organisational efforts that went into both the tournament and the new qualification structure. More broadly, the broadcast coverage was sorely lacking the input of anyone who had followed the sides' progress through sub-regional and regional qualifying closely, whose familiarity with the teams and players would be deeper than what can be achieved by hasty, or even meticulous, research.

Whilst the absence of Afghanistan (whose record since scraping through to a fifth-place finish at the 2015 edition has been enough to see them not only qualify directly through the rankings, but even bypass the "First Round" straight to the Super 12s and Nepal, who came up short at the Asia regional final, has inevitably had an impact on attendances, whilst the absence of a second Full Member in Zimbabwe inevitably lowered the profile of the event somewhat. Yet the presence of Singapore, Bermuda and Nigeria underlined the value of the Global Qualifier not just as a feeder for the World Cup itself or even as an opportunity for smaller sides to take a turn on a bigger stage, but also its worth as an aspiration for those teams that did not make the cut. For countries lower down the regional qualification ladder, especially those who are following the ICC's direction in concentrating on the shortest format, a chance of reaching the T20 Global Qualifier can be a goal and a motivator in and of itself.

The Future

Yet, it was from those teams that the first hints emerged that the future of the tournament itself was in serious doubt. The teams set to contest the next round of European Sub-Regional Qualifiers as part of the pathway to the 2021 World Cup were informed three weeks ago that only one side from each of the three Sub-Regional Tournaments (to be held in Finland, Belgium and Spain) would progress to the European Regional Final, rather than the two from each pool that graduated in the previous cycle. The inescapable implication was that several European teams would drop down from the Global Qualifier to make up the numbers, and if the same held true across the other four regions, that would imply that qualification for 2021 would be done directly through regional finals, obviating the need for the global event entirely.

Sure enough, reports came out during the tournament itself that the ICC development committee were considering a move to a regional qualification model for 2021, that would see the four teams that made it through the preliminary "first round" of the 2020 event automatically qualify for 2021, together with the eight full members that were already awarded a bye to the main "Super 12" phase of the tournament, whilst the remaining sides would drop back to regional qualifiers where the remaining four qualification spots for 2021 would be divided amongst the ICC's five regions.

From a purely competitive perspective, however, there are serious drawbacks to any such regional qualification pathway. The uneven distribution of stronger Associates across the five regions means some countries would have a far easier path to 2021 than others, as well as making countries concerningly dependent on the fortunes of their near neighbours. Should Papua New Guinea have a couple of good games in Australia next year, the East Asia Pacific regional final would consist of 46th-ranked Philippines, followed by Vanuatu (ranked 49). There would thus be at least 10 countries in Europe ranked higher than the likely EAP champions who would miss out, possibly including several top-20 teams. Notwithstanding the near-uselessness of ICC rankings as applied to associates, there would be serious concerns in terms of competitive balance attached to any purely regional system. Even combining the Americas and EAP regions would leave regional qualifying looking hugely lopsided, with Canada being the only Americas associates ranked in the top 30, compared to as many as ten in Asia, who could potentially be joined in regional qualifying by two full members in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. This dependence on the fortunes of co-regional countries in determining how easy or difficult a given country's path to 2021 might also throw up an alarming possibility for perverse incentives distorting the 2020 "first round" stage, with countries potentially motivated to help co-regional country's progress at the expense of teams from other regions.

At least as concerning as any competitive aspect, however, is simply the potential loss of one of only two genuinely high-profile Associate events. Whilst the (sub)regional competition structure provided plenty of competitive and high-stakes cricket, the entire series of tournaments passed largely under the radar, not helped by the ICC's reluctance to arrange for live streaming of the events. It seems unlikely that the ICC will be able to improve on the coverage of the previous cycle, given the budget constraints imposed by an additional qualification cycle for what was originally scheduled to be an 8-team Champions Trophy. Indeed as much as time pressure it is inevitable that financial constraints are also a factor forcing the reorganisation of qualifying for 2021, as despite having to double up on pathway events, it was always unlikely that twice the budget would be made available.

Yet despite the reports swirling at the tournament last week, the ICC have been at pains to, if not dismiss entirely, then at least pour cold water on the rumours of the Global Qualifier's demise. It's clear enough that many at the ICC, at least in the Development department, are well aware of the tournament's value. An ICC spokesperson clarifying, said:

"The ICC Men's T20 WC Qualifier was a success in what was a tight packed schedule of 51 T20Is in 15 days across five venues. The competitive nature of the event showcased the growing quality of the 13 Associate Members and Ireland in the T20 format, with PNG securing qualification to their first ever senior World Cup and Namibia qualification to their first ever T20 WC. Nothing has been decided in relation to the ICC Men's T20 WC 2021 qualification process as yet. The ICC is currently working through a number of different models to see how best to determine four qualifiers from the regions for the event which will be tabled to the ICC Development Committee in due course."

It was also noteworthy that the draw for the European Sub-Regionals, which was set to be announced on the November 1, has been conspicuously postponed, suggesting that no final decision has been arrived at on plans for 2021.

Nonetheless, there are reasons to be concerned that the 2019 T20 WC Global Qualifier may be the last edition of the tournament, at least in its current form. Whilst the pressure, both in terms of time and money, exerted by the abridged schedule between the 2020 and 2021 editions is unique, especially should the tournament lapse back into a four-year cycle following 2021, spending constraints are likely to be a persistent conditioning factor in pathway structures going forward. If the 2021 qualifying cycle is per force run on the cheap, the option to persist with the less financially demanding structure will remain tempting once proved viable.

A newly confident and combative BCCI, freed from the administrative encumbrance of the CoA and themselves under domestic pressure to claim a larger share of ICC revenues, will be putting further pressure on the financial resources made available for pathway events. When faced with a recalcitrant BCCI, the other full members' first instinct has generally been to buy them off with money from the Associates cut, or by expecting the ICC to further cut funding for development or Associate competitions. Moreover, few of those Associate voices likely to be heard around the table have much incentive to object. The three elected Associates representatives on the ICC Chief Executive's committee; Vanuatu Cricket president Mark Stafford, Botswana Cricket Association fixtures and publicity secretary Sumod Damodar, and Neil Speight - the former CEO Bermuda Cricket; are drawn from three of the competitively weaker counties, and (with no representative from Europe or Asia) from the three weakest regions.

The current slate of representatives' priority has understandably been to secure more direct funding for smaller associates even at the cost of further reductions in the event's budget - "more money, fewer tournaments" as one insider summed it up. Yet, several lower-ranked associates, especially those with aspirations to challenge for a spot at the global qualifier have privately reacted with dismay at the reports, and indeed Stafford, despite the potential advantages for Vanuatu specifically, has publicly stated that he would oppose any move to abolish the Global Qualifier regardless.

With even the 2021 pathway structure still under review, and the continued uncertainty regarding even the schedule for pinnacle ICC events post-2023, much less qualifying, there is a reason to hope that rumours of the demise of the T20 WC Global Qualifier may yet prove exaggerated, or at least that an eventual resurrection may be possible. Certainly, it would seem that there are still those in Dubai willing to argue the case for the tournament's future. But it's fair to say they have a fight on their hands.

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