Qualification in the time of Covid

It will come as no surprise to anyone that the international cricket calendar has faced considerable disruption during the Covid-19 pandemic. Whilst the full member calendar has largely returned to normal, the associate calendar, particularly around ICC pathway events, still faces considerable disruption.

In recent weeks a number of pathway events have been cancelled with teams going straight through to the next stage of qualification - or straight to the World Cup in the case of Under-19 pathway events - on the basis of ICC rankings for senior events and past performance in the case of Under-19 events.

There are valid questions around this approach, including whether the rankings are a fair way to decide qualification, whether events are being cancelled too soon and in one case whether the correct decision has been made.

For the men's T20 World Cup in 2022, the European sub-regional groups had already been cancelled with Germany, Italy and Denmark joining Jersey in the European final. I've covered this before and questioned whether the decision was taken too soon. With international cricket resuming across the continent, including in the scheduled hosts for those sub-regional events Finland and Belgium, it does appear that at least a modified second tier qualification event could have taken place.

This past week the ICC announced that the East Asia Pacific qualifier for the men's T20 World Cup had been cancelled with the Philippines progressing on the basis of their ranking as of April 2021. Again the question of timing comes up here - the World Cup itself is scheduled to start in October 2022 leaving over a year to get regional and global qualification in. Again, was it not possible to hold at least a modified event, perhaps with fewer teams?

The Philippines progressing on the basis of their ranking is also questionable. They were indeed the highest ranked of the eight teams set to play in that qualifier. But their ranking is based on a small number of games. I won't bore you with the mathematics behind the ICC rankings, but I think it will be obvious to all that under ten games is not sufficient to establish an accurate record of form for a team.

As I'll discuss later, the Under-19 qualifiers where events have been cancelled have been based on ten years worth of results. The ICC rankings currently cover matches for under a four year period, including two years where most of the teams in the region have played no international cricket. Why the difference?

The Philippines were runners-up to Papua New Guinea in the last EAP qualifier, but them even getting there was a surprise and their runners-up spot was a result of an abandonment against PNG and a win in a five-over thrash against Vanuatu. Their ranking is boosted by this game, and the small sample size and lack of games since continues to inflate their ranking.

Looking at their historic performance, they finished fifth in the EAP region in 2014 and couldn't make it out of Division Two in 2011. This strongly suggests that their 2019 performance was a blip, no doubt aided by an ICC eligibility rule change (after the Philippines themselves protested the old rules) that did away with the development criteria and allowed the Philippines to pick more players from elsewhere with Philippine heritage.

The ICC would likely point to a study done to confirm the suitability of the ICC rankings for qualification for ICC events. But given that this study was carried out by the person who designed the rankings, it would be fair to question just how rigorous and independent that study was.

Almost nobody who follows associate cricket in the EAP region would pick the Philippines as the best team in the region, with Vanuatu being the most obvious pick, and even Fiji, Samoa and Japan probably on most peoples' lists before they get to the Philippines. Ranked highest they may be, but using the rankings in this case has produced the wrong participant.

The East-Asia Pacific regional qualifier for the 2023 Women's T20 World Cup has also been cancelled, though the team to go through will not be decided until the end of November. In this case, as the World Cup isn't until February 2023, there is even more time to reschedule regional qualification, so again it looks like this decision has been taken too soon.

The decision to delay deciding the qualifier until the end of November also opens up the possibility of teams gaming the rankings. Papua New Guinea are the top ranked team at the moment, but Samoa are only just behind and the small sample size for their rating means that it can change quickly were they to arrange a series at the last minute to try and boost their rating. Again, this opens up questions about the fairness of the rankings.

This brings us to the Under-19 World Cup qualifiers. With the Under-19 World Cup set to take place in the West Indies early next year, time is of the essence here and with players in this age-group often having school to think of, it is more understandable that tournaments are being cancelled.

Whilst the European and African qualifiers are still set to go ahead, the tournaments for the other three regions have been cancelled. Papua New Guinea will progress from the EAP region, Canada from the Americas region and the United Arab Emirates from the Asian region. This has been based - or so it is claimed in the ICC press release - on the number of wins each team has had in the last five regional events.

Whilst there will be little debate that Papua New Guinea are the best team in the EAP region - Japan were the winners only after a forfeit for disciplinary reasons in the 2019 qualifier - the situation is less clear for the Americas and Asian region.

In the Americas region, the USA were set to host Canada, Bermuda and Argentina, but the event was cancelled after Canada and Bermuda withdrew. The team that benefitted from the cancellation? Canada. They have qualified for each of the last four Under-19 World Cups, but pulling out at a time when professional sports teams are now allowed to cross the US-Canada border is not a good look.

The women's regional qualifier for the region was moved to Mexico - was it not possible to find an alternative host for the Under-19 qualifier?

This brings us to the Asian region. Remember that the criteria mentioned in the ICC media release was the number of wins in the last five qualifiers. Wins for the UAE in those tournaments? 14. Wins for Nepal in those tournaments? 21. Something doesn't add up here.

The UAE did get automatic qualification for the 2014 event as hosts, but did play in the qualifier anyway as it doubled as a qualifier for the Under-19 Asia Cup, so it can't be due to ignoring that tournament. Even if we took the wins for both teams from that event away, Nepal still comes out on top.

Nepal have qualified for two of the last five Under-19 World Cups, whilst UAE have only qualified once. The only way UAE can come out on top is if one ignores Nepal's wins in qualification during their board's suspension from the ICC. But the principle at the time was that players shouldn't be punished due to the incompetence of the board, so it would surely be unfair to do so now.

Whichever way we look at it, it seems that Nepal have been unfairly denied a place at the 2022 Under-19 World Cup. They're not the only team to feel that they've missed out across the men's, women's and Under-19 pathways, but they can certainly be the most aggrieved.

ICC web-stream

I covered the Women's European T20 World Cup qualifier in some depth in last week's column, but one thing I didn't mention was the ICC web-stream. It was the first event live-streamed under the deal that will see almost every pathway event streamed for the first time over the next couple of years.

Whilst it perhaps wasn't the high standard of cricket the ICC would have hoped for to launch the deal, the ability to actually watch a pathway event was a refreshing change. Impressive feats that have happened in pathway events in the past are often only remembered by those who were there. This time there is footage of Frederique Overdijk becoming the first bowler - male or female - to take seven wickets in a T20I.

Whilst the quality of the broadcast was a little short of what we might be used to at the main ICC events - graphics were sometimes a little behind the action, the image wasn't as high a quality and the cameras were a little too susceptible to high winds - it was far better than not being able to watch at all.

One place where it was an improvement on when associates play in the main ICC events - including global qualifiers - was when it comes to commentary. Instead of hiring the usual names that crop up around the world, the ICC instead had former Cricket Ireland and ICC social media man Andy Leonard and Cricinfo's US correspondent Peter Della Penna.

With both having been involved in associate cricket for some time, there were no instances of some of the worst coverage in previous global qualifiers. They knew that these countries played cricket, were well informed about the backgrounds of the players and knew that there was more to them than their records in games that count towards their statistical record. It was a refreshing change and one that I hope the ICC continues throughout these live-streamed pathway events and also carries forward to global qualifying events.

International round-up

It continues to be a busy time in associate cricket. The big event in Europe this week has been the Continental Cup in Romania, and reports on that are available elsewhere on this website. Shortly after my column was published last week, Sweden's women's side won their maiden T20I, beating Norway by two wickets in a low scoring contest. Norway's Ayesha Hasan made history by becoming the first player to carry her bat in a women's T20I. Chris Gayle is the only batter to do that in men's T20Is, and few would imagine that a Norwegian women's player would ever have anything in common with the big hitting West Indian international.

Thailand women tour of Africa

The Zimbabwean leg go Thailand's African tour concluded with a three match T20I series this past week. In the first match Thailand were put into bat and scored 104-4 with Nannapat Koncharoenkai dominating their innings with an unbeaten 62. She was ably assisted by Chanida Sutthiruang who scored an unbeaten 33 as the pair put on 75 for the fifth wicket.

The match ended up as a closely fought contest as Zimbabwe collapsed from 72-2 to 80-8 in a 21 ball period. The tail wagged just enough to allow the hosts to secure a one wicket win with three balls to spare.

In an improved performance in the second match, Thailand scored 154-3 from their 20 overs, led by Natthakan Chantham's unbeaten 88 from just 65 balls. Nattaya Boochatham then took 4-16 as Zimbabwe were bowled out for 101 to secure Thailand a 53 run win and level the series.

The top of Thailand's order didn't fire in the third and deciding match on Monday, instead leaving it to the sixth wicket pairing of Naruemol Chaiwai and Chanida Sutthiruang to recover the innings from 70-5. They put on an unbroken 64 to take the total to 134-5 with Sutthiruang scoring 46 from just 28 balls.

Thailand are now in South Africa for the next leg of their tour where they will be taking on a South Africa Emerging side in five one-day matches and three T20 matches. The first one-day match takes place today.

Uganda v Kenya

Kenya are currently touring Uganda for a three match one-day series that will be followed by a T20I tri-series also involving Nigeria. The first one-day match was played yesterday and Kenya scored 306-7 after being put into bat. Alex Obanda top-scored for them with 73, whilst Irfan Karim scored 72.

Uganda lost two wickets in the first over of their reply, and never really recovered from there, despite Riazat Ali Shah scoring 74 batting at number seven. Nehemiah Odhiambo was the pick of the Kenyan bowlers as they bowled the home team out for 228 to secure a 78 run win.

Uganda levelled the series this morning with a rather one-sided victory over their old rivals. Charles Waiswa took 4-15 as they bowled the tourists out for just 85. An unbeaten 40 by Saud Islam and Ronak Patel's 35 not out helped them complete a nine wicket win in just 12.1 overs. The teams will meet in a decider on Tuesday.