Too often we hear the statement that change is the only constant. This aptly fits for cricket which has evolved drastically over the years. The ODI format was discovered when a test match in 1971 was washed out due to rain. Officials decided to play a one-off game with limited over restrictions to please the audience and hence the first One Day International was played. We have seen the launch of T20s that created a paradigm shift. Ever since its launch, T20s always thrived with more leagues played across the globe and the fast-paced nature of the game. As for Test cricket, Pink ball matches were introduced to rope in more audience to increase engagement, a format which was perceived as losing its flavor. Test championship was introduced to make every game significant. While these changes are welcome, Test matches mostly remained relevant with traditional fans still preferring the longer format and with rivalries involved between the teams. Every Ashes series carves out a drama of its own. A series between India and Australia is rightly hyped with memorable matches between these 2 sides. Even teams at the lower half of the test rankings are difficult to beat at their respective homes.
Both the shorter and longer formats of the game prevailed, while the ODIs got sandwiched between the two. Unless it was a World Cup year, 50 over games were seen redundant and bilateral series was losing its relevancy. Despite more teams getting ODI status, we see only the top 8 sides facing each other regularly. Remember the last time Netherlands played an ODI game against a top ranked side. That was way back in 2013, when South Africa decided to take a detour to Amstelveen before playing the Champions Trophy in England that year. Most of the ODIs that the Dutch team played after that were against a similarly ranked side or the games under World Cup Qualifiers. Netherlands have a sorrow record in ODIs having never defeated a top ranked side in the minimal chances that they got – “minimal” being the keyword. Having played its first ODI in 1996 World Cup, Netherlands have played a total of only 80 ODIs till date. The same concern was raised by Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan when his team lost all the league games in the World Cup last year. The country’s ace spinner mentioned that to gain more exposure, his team needs to get more matches against top sides on a regular basis, instead of once in 4 years. To make matters worse, the World Cup has been trimmed only for the top 10 teams. Thankfully, the format might see some light with launch of new ODI Super League.
For starters, the league is almost similar to Test Championship. All the 12 Test teams + Netherlands will be participating. Each of them will face 8 other teams (4 home and 4 away) in a 3-match ODI series hence not all would face against each other. Once again, fans will be deprived of India- Pakistan face off and will have to wait for major tournaments. A team gets at least 24 ODIs within the next 2 years, with each game worth 10 points. The aggregated points gained in this league will be used for qualification in 2023 World Cup, unlike typical ICC rankings. India gets a direct qualification being the host and the top 7 teams from points table will get to qualify. Remaining 5 teams will play other associates like Nepal, UAE in a separate Qualifier tournament to decide the 9th and 10th spot for the World cup.
The Super League has some minor issues and faced criticism. To start, the league is not entirely round robin with few teams not facing each other, so some might perceive the points table as unfair. Secondly, the probability of experienced teams finishing top 8 is high with lower ranked teams getting pushed back to qualifiers. If that happens, the league would not have made a significant difference for the road to World Cup. Another problem is the direct qualification of the host, a norm followed in Football tournament. Usually, World Cups were held in continents instead of individual countries. It is not feasible to host global tournaments entirely in Zimbabwe, Ireland, or Netherlands. Afghanistan does not host games and has their home base in India. International cricket is slowly coming back to Pakistan but hosting tournaments might take a long time. Hence, these teams might miss out on the advantage of direct qualification during the 4-year cycle. However, the league is held for the first time, so it is not perfect. One can hope that few changes will be made in upcoming editions to make it more transparent.
Despite having minor issues, the super league does address the problem of game time that the lower ranked teams lacked. As mentioned previously, Netherlands that played only 80 ODIs all these years will play at least 24 more ODIs within this cycle. We will be seeing more of Afghanistan, Ireland and Zimbabwe playing against top teams. This will give them more exposure and helps them to handle pressure. These teams cannot up the ante if they only play against each other. Even if they get pushed back to qualifiers, they can still finish the 9th and 10th spots of the World Cup. Once qualified, they can use the experience gained during this league to compete hard in the marquee 50 over tournament, rather than aiming for occasional upsets. Every match played is a new data generated which helps them to analyze their strengths and weakness that these nations have when facing big teams.
Also, with each ODI having points at stake, it increases the relevancy of a bilateral series. Despite a team losing the first 2 ODIs of the series, they have something to play for in third game, avoiding a dead rubber. The league has already started with England winning 2-1 against Ireland. Despite Ireland losing the series, they gained 10 points by winning the last game. This will come handy during the later stage of the league. Now consider this situation for Ireland. They have gained an advantage by defeating a stronger team like England. One can expect Ireland to win a series against a side that are similar in rankings as them. They can sneak in occasional victories and try to surpass West Indies and Sri Lanka, who are going through rough patch. If this goes well, Ireland has a realistic possibility of finishing in top 7 and a direct qualification in 2023. The battle for 7th spot might get intense. Also, Ireland can take heart from how they have played the series. In the 1st ODI they were beaten comprehensively. In the 2nd game, they fought well but could not close the game and ended up on losing side. The final match saw Ireland chasing 328 convincingly with Paul Stirling and Andrew Balbirnie scoring centuries. Debutant Curtis Campher impressed with his all-round abilities. Early days for him but he seems an interesting prospect and we might get to know more such players in the upcoming games. Although the World Cup is still restricted to only 10 teams, we can expect some competitive cricket and few surprises even before the tournament starts. Hopefully, the league can serve as one good step to make 50-over cricket more interesting.