ICC wrong to give up on underdogs
Cricket's governing body should emulate Big Dance and embrace its Cinderellas
A tepid first week of games wrapped up Tuesday at the ICC World Twenty20. Crowds in Sri Lanka were poor and the action on the field was mostly underwhelming, but well before Pakistan finished an eight-wicket win over Bangladesh in the last game of group play, debate was reignited in the media as to the worthiness of cricket's second-tier teams being welcomed to participate in a major International Cricket Council tournament.
The chalk came through in the group stage as cricket's traditional elite eight advanced to the Super Eights phase while Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Ireland and Zimbabwe failed to win a game. However, calls to eliminate berths for these teams from future events and limit the World Twenty20 to eight teams are shortsighted. Instead, the ICC should stay committed to expanding the World Twenty20 to 16 teams in 2014.
Recent history shows that these perennial underdogs are damned if they do win games against cricket's heavyweights and damned if they don't. The 50-over ICC World Cup in 2007 was a 16-team event that saw Ireland and Bangladesh upset Pakistan and India, respectively, in the group stage. Rather than hail these results as signs of progress and perhaps steps toward parity to validate the decision to expand the World Cup from 14 teams in 2003, when both Kenya and Zimbabwe advanced beyond the group stage, cricket's administrators viewed Ireland and Bangladesh advancing at the expense of Pakistan and India as a sign of the apocalypse.
Rather than going straight from a group phase to a knockout phase, the 2007 World Cup format saw the top two teams from each group advance to a Super Eights phase, which involved the eight remaining teams playing a four-week series of round-robin games. The reason the tournament did not progress immediately to knockout quarterfinals after the group phase was to satisfy a minimum number of games to be broadcast on television, a stipulation of the ICC's TV rights contract. With India not involved in the Super Eights, ratings and advertising revenue dipped. Soon after, the decision was made to reduce the 2011 World Cup from 16 to 14 teams for commercially motivated rather than competitive reasons.
From the end of the 2007 World Cup to the start of the 2011 World Cup, India had 121 one-day internationals scheduled against full member teams. Over that same time span, India played only three 50-over matches against associate teams: one each against Ireland and Scotland as part of a tour to the U.K. in 2007 and one match against Hong Kong as part of the 2008 Asia Cup. That means zero matches against associate members in 2009-11 outside of the World Cup. Ireland was able to schedule only 17 ODI matches against full members during that four-year stretch between World Cups, with 10 of them coming against the lowest-ranked full members, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.
The plight of cricket's associate teams is similar to that of college basketball's mid-majors. A team like Creighton goes into this season with a returning first-team Associated Press All-American in junior Doug McDermott. However, one of the few ways the Bluejays can schedule tough opponents outside their Missouri Valley Conference schedule is by going to an early season, neutral-site tournament in Las Vegas, where they're scheduled to take on Wisconsin. Would Wisconsin, Ohio State, Duke or Kansas agree to play in front of 18,000 fans at CenturyLink Center Omaha? Fat chance. Just about the only teams Creighton can arrange home games against are low or fellow mid-majors like St. Joseph's and Akron.
By the end of the season, even if Creighton finishes 24-9 overall and 12-6 in conference, it could wind up on the NCAA tournament selection bubble. The argument against the Bluejays will be, "They didn't play anybody. They're in the Missouri Valley." Meanwhile, the eighth-best team in the Big East could also be on the bubble at 20-12 and 9-9, and the majority of pundits will vouch for it because, "They play in a loaded conference." How can a team like Creighton prove it can compete with Big East squads if no one in the Big East is willing to schedule the Bluejays, especially not in Omaha?
In 2011, ESPN's Jay Bilas was indignant when the NCAA tournament field was revealed because he felt several teams on the bubble got shafted. "Winning the tournament is no longer the Holy Grail," Bilas said. "The Holy Grail is getting into the Dance." One team he was arguing for was Colorado, a squad that was 21-13, 8-8 in the Big 12. Meanwhile, he was outraged that Virginia Commonwealth was one of the last at-large teams in the field of 68 with a record of 23-11 (12-6 in the Colonial Athletic Association). A key talking point was that Colorado had a win over a fifth-ranked Texas team on its résumé. VCU's best nonconference win was against unranked UCLA in New York at the Preseason NIT.
Given a chance as an 11th seed, VCU won a First Four play-in game over USC and then continued to pull off win after win in stunning fashion, beating a who's who of power conference opponents in Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and No. 1 seed Kansas. The Rams' tournament run came to an end in the Final Four against, what are the odds, a fellow mid-major in Butler.
Despite having only 17 matches in four years to gain experience and challenge themselves against cricket's cabal of full members, Ireland took on England in its second match of the 2011 World Cup and completed the greatest successful run-chase in the tournament's history, passing England's total of 327 in Bangalore. Prior to the 2011 World Cup, the ICC had made plans to reduce the number of teams in the 2015 World Cup even further from 14 to 10. Ireland's win over England spurred overwhelming outrage against the ICC's decision. A few months later the council rescinded its 10-team plan for 2015, meaning four associate teams will compete at that event in Australia and New Zealand. But it's only a stay of execution. The 2019 World Cup is slated to be a 10-team event.
Imagine if the NCAA responded to wins by No. 15 seeds Lehigh and Norfolk State over Duke and Missouri, respectively, in last season's tournament by cutting the field to 48 teams from 68. In the past 15 years, only teams from the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten and SEC have claimed the championship, but that hasn't been cause to go out campaigning to reconfigure the tournament so that only teams from those conferences are eligible for selection. A No. 16 seed has never beaten a top seed, but that doesn't mean the participation of No. 16 seeds from conferences such as the MAAC, MEAC, SWAC and Big South is a waste of time. After all, Syracuse was almost toppled by UNC-Asheville this past March but escaped thanks in part to a dubious out-of-bounds call in the final minute.
Unforgettable memories at any tournament in any sport are built on the unknowns and the underdogs springing a surprise. Miracle on Ice, anyone? In college basketball, it's the VCUs, Norfolk States and Lehighs that provide those thrills. In cricket, it's Ireland, Bangladesh and the Netherlands, which shocked England in the opening match of the 2009 World Twenty20. So what if there were no upsets this time around? It's not as though there were tremendous opportunities to do so for a team such as Ireland, which had 50 percent of its group fixtures in Sri Lanka washed out by rain and hardly any chances to prove its mettle against full members outside of ICC tournaments either.
For a sport whose foundational premise is built around the slow, patient build-up of on-field play before reaching a crescendo, cricket's opinion-shapers have developed an irrational urge to cut to the chase. A vision for long-term development is increasingly discouraged. Instead, it's all about trimming the fat, getting rid of the bottom-feeders and heading straight for the main course in order to watch only the teams that might actually make the final. That's just not cricket.
As Jay Bilas said, "The Holy Grail is getting into the Dance." That certainly rings true for the associate countries of world cricket. Whether it's Ireland's Trent Johnston doing "the chicken" in Bangalore or the West Indies' Chris Gayle going Gangnam Style in Colombo, major ICC tournaments like the World Cup and the World Twenty20 are about giving as many teams as possible, associates and full members, a chance to bust a move on the dance floor.
Follow Peter on Twitter @PeterDellaPenna
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