“Try explaining that to the man on the street.”
Given the mouthful of terms and conditions plastered onto the screen during a rain delay in Sky Cricket’s excellent coverage of the recent Test series between England and West Indies, it was perhaps understandable to hear Mike Atherton utter these words about the ICC’s new ODI league, after Ian Ward had wondered aloud why the existing rankings weren’t enough.
What may have been more helpful, though, is to use a scenario from recent history to underline how different things will be in a world where cricket’s establishment nations actually face an equitable qualification bar to play in a global event. This is rather a change from the usual task of just turning up on the scheduled start date every four years and trying their luck from there, while the game’s other nations scramble, scrape and struggle to fight their way into the token couple of tournament spots left over.
Of course, there had already been an attempt to use the rankings as a qualification method for 2015 to 2019, but it raised a couple of pretty large red flags. First, that historical points from a previous World Cup cycle still factored into rankings right up to the cut-off date – Australia, for instance, were still being pushed up the ICC table by their performances in the 2015 World Cup to ensure automatic qualification in late 2017, long after those results had lost currency.
Second, and arguably more troublesome, is the fact that teams could manipulate the rankings by scheduling extra matches in order to try to reach the qualifying threshold. Essentially it was possible for nations to “game the system” by slotting in extra fixtures if needed.
As the ICC’s cricket chief Geoff Allardice put it: “Ahead of the World Cup in England, in 2019, the qualification process was based on the ODI rankings. And the rankings can be influenced by the access to which opponents you get and if you end up playing against high rated teams you can move more speedily up the rankings.
“So, the idea of creating a league and having each of the eligible teams competing over the same number of matches against the spread of opponents was felt to be a way to be able to bring a bit more meaning to the matches that were being played.”
Funnily enough, there’s a terrific example of how greater meaning might have be gleaned from 2019, involving the eventual semi-finalists Australia, that clearly demonstrates how the new league, while far from perfect, will fundamentally change how “the man on the street” sees bilateral ODI series.
“The rankings can be influenced by the access to which opponents you get and if you end up playing against high rated teams you can move more speedily up the rankings.”
Having lifted the Cup on home soil in 2015, the Australian ODI team went more or less into mothballs as a competitive team over the next three or so years. With Test cricket as Cricket Australia’s publicly stated priority, ODI results were spotty at best, and often, as when they toured South Africa in late 2016 or faced England at home and away in 2018, downright embarrassing from one of the world’s best and certainly richest teams.
“One of the challenges we know is trying to get our best players playing all forms of the game when they play most of the year,” Australia’s coach Justin Langer said. “So in the past it seemed to be that our ranking in T20 cricket wasn’t great because a lot of times some of our players were rested through that form of the game, and it’s the same now with one day cricket. It’s hard to have them playing all forms so you’ve got to work out what your priorities are.
“The reality now though is that every form is a high priority, and we’ve been doing a lot over the last couple of months around how we can improve our 50-over cricket, we haven’t been great at it since the guys won the last World Cup in Australia. It’s certainly something we’re focusing on, and I guess it gives it more importance now with the table and new schedule as it is.”
By unofficially ranking the world’s ODI teams on a win percentage basis in bilateral matches between the 2015 and 2019 Cups, Australia actually finished in eighth spot, the cut-off line for automatic qualification under the new league’s terms. In doing so they pipped Pakistan, while West Indies and Sri Lanka sagged a long way behind. Though they played fewer matches, Bangladesh and Afghanistan outperformed these “bigger” nations, illustrating why a more meritocratic system is long overdue.
“The prioritisation even from a playing POV, prior to Covid-19, some countries talking about their series in the Super League, wasn’t as easy to rest players as it used to be because the matches all counted towards World Cup qualification,” Allardice said. “In terms of making sure teams were putting out their strongest XI, teams aren’t going to take any of these teams lightly and we’re probably going to see a higher quality of ODI cricket as a result.”
What makes things still more intriguing for Australia however, is this. Because they had more or less ignored ODIs as a format of priority in intervening years, they entered their final three assignments: home and away ODI series against India and another in the UAE against Pakistan, struggling to maintain what would now be one of the automatic qualification places based on their winning percentage.
Anyone who has watched the Amazon documentary The Test will know that the early months of 2019 were far from easy for the Australians. Langer was struggling under the strain of the national coaching job, ODI captain Aaron Finch woefully out of touch as a batsman after being pitched into the Test team, and there was uncertainty about the looming returns of Steven Smith and David Warner from their Newlands bans.
Given their lack of context or any pressure in terms of qualification for the World Cup, the white ball matches against India and Pakistan ultimately served as a time in which, under less pressure, the Australian side was able to regroup and pull together a workable formula for playing ODIs, losing creditably to India at home, then coming from behind to win a thrilling series against Virat Kohli’s men 3-2 away, then swatting Pakistan aside 5-0 in the UAE. They won eight matches in a row to finish with a 50% winning record for the cycle.
Contrast this with the kinds of suffocating pressure experienced by the likes of Scotland or Ireland in their failed efforts to qualify for a World Cup played more or less on their doorstep, or the cycle of anxiety and jubilation and/or desolation faced by major nations trying to qualify for a FIFA World Cup.
Faced with the prospect of missing automatic qualification and then needing to enter an extra tournament just to take part in the World Cup proper, it is not hard to imagine Langer’s image in The Test coming to resemble that of the harried England football manager Graham Taylor during qualifiers for the 1994 football World Cup in an earlier fly-on-the-wall effort, An Impossible Job.
“It certainly puts a new perspective on it,” Langer said. “For a long time there’s been discussion or whispers or observations that perhaps a lot of one day cricket is, not meaningless cricket, but people will say ‘what’s the point of it’ and we all know what the point of it is, but from a pure performance point of view, it gives us a whole new perspective and a really good one I think.
“In terms of performance it gives it great relevance, so hopefully that means we have our best players on the park more often. You’ve got to make sure you qualify – with the schedule as it is, you don’t want to have to qualify for the World Cup. With the Ashes and probably India Test series now, the World Cup is numero uno in white ball cricket, so of course we want to be qualifying for it, playing great cricket and building up to the World Cup at the same time.”
As it stands, the cut-off date for automatic qualification ahead of the 2023 event is likely to be around February of that year, before the qualification repechage event in June/July ahead of the World Cup itself in India in October and November. That sort of time-frame would mean that Australia’s typical program of home ODIs following a Test summer would loom as a last chance to qualify: either for the hosts themselves, or opponents including England and South Africa.
That, undoubtedly, would be a pressure understood by “the man on the street”, regardless of how complex the ODI league might look at the current distance.