We need to talk about bilateral cricket…
When you sit down and think about it, bilateral tours are little more than friendly fixtures. Sure, you’re representing your country at the highest level, and there are places the (totally broken) rankings table up for grabs, so there’s at least something to play for. Mostly though they are friendly series, with perhaps a trophy to show for your efforts at the end. There’s no real long-term goal, and there’s no overarching storyline.
We’ve recently seen the ICC introduce new structures into Test Match and 50 Over cricket to provide much needed context to both formats of the game, the latter now stretching across the top 32 teams in the world and designed such that every team must qualify for the next ODI World Cup in 2023. Previously the top teams had qualified based on status or rank. Whilst neither structure is perfect (or close for that matter), at least they exist.
As it stands, there is no such structure to encompass T20 cricket. Despite being globally the most popular and competitive form of the game, the ICC has not put into motion as much as a plan for a T20 championship. It’s a glaring hole in the armoury given that the ICC has put so much effort into the two longer formats but the shortest and most played is left to its own devices.
As part of this series looking at ways to improve and futureproof international cricket, it seems best to consider a global T20 championship: What should it be? Who should play in it? How should it be structured?
Apart from being the obvious gap in the ICC’s repertoire, a well designed T20 Championship could be used to provide more meritocracy to the game. First and foremost, the tournament could provide a pathway by which all members are required to qualify for the T20 World Cup. The structure could also be used to reward successful associate nations with higher quality opposition. On top of this, such a design would help to bridge the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ by providing more fixtures between full members and associates, and provide context and therefore value to series between weaker sides.
So, the brief:
- The structure should serve as a qualification pathway for the T20 World Cup
- Since T20 is the designated global growth format, the structure should allow all member nations to participate
- The structure should provide all participating nations with a pathway to the next T20 World Cup
- The top level(s) of the structure should reflect that T20 is the most globally popular format
- The tournament structure should aim to take advantage of existing bilateral tours or short tournaments
With that in mind, I’m going to propose two outlines for potential T20 Championships that would fulfil the above criteria. One inspired by the UEFA Nations League, one inspired by the NFL.
UEFA Nations League Inspired
The UEFA Nations League is a European international football tournament introduced in 2018 to provide context to the international friendlies that punctuate the domestic football season. Teams are broken down into leagues based on their rank and then sorted into groups. Each team plays all the teams in their group over a 12-month period, and the final rankings determine promotion and relegation between leagues.
Whilst the tournament was designed for European football, it would beautifully for international cricket. Dividing teams up into 2 or 3 global divisions of 10 – 16 teams based on performance would guarantee every team involved competitive cricket. Promotion and relegation between divisions at the end of each cycle would add drama and incentive, and if designed properly there would be very few dead rubbers as every team would have something to play for. Such a design could also help to engage new and casual fans of teams across all tiers as the context and purpose would be clear and easy to understand.
On top of that, the final rank of teams could be used to determine world cup qualification, with teams progressing either directly to the world cup, to a global, or to a regional qualifying round based on their final rank in the tournament.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of this design is its flexibility. For the top division, bilateral series would be the obvious choice for fulfilling fixtures, and depending on the time between T20 World Cups (whether it’s two or four years), the division could be run as a single league or broken down into several groups to suit the time frame. As we progress down the division, where budgets and player availability are reduced, it would be preferable to have smaller groups to contain the number of fixtures, and fulfil them by playing in tri-series or single venue events, akin to the Cricket World Cup League 2 and Challenge Leagues in the 50 Over structure.
Perhaps the greatest example of a tournament where there are lots of teams but comparatively few games is the NFL. In the NFL, the 32 franchises are assigned to conferences based on their region (and historical affiliations). Each team plays all their opponents in their conference each season, but also plays teams in selected other conferences based on region and rank. Each team plays 16 games per season, and the top teams progress to the playoffs.
Once again, we can take inspiration from this for a T20 Championship. The top teams in the world could be broken down into conferences of 3 – 5 teams, ideally along regional lines (though some teams would need to be moved around to provide more balanced groups), with team playing all their conference opponents, as well as selected other fixtures in cross-conference games. The top teams in each conference would automatically qualify for the world cup, with the remaining teams progressing to a global qualifier.
Compared with the Nations League proposal, there’s a potential sticking point here because sides like India may be less willing to frequently host sides such as Namibia or travel to Nepal for a T20I series. Games could get a little one sided and certain facilities may not be up to the standard expected by touring full members. But then consider the scenes as Sandeep Lamichhane strides into bowl to Virat Kohli at the TU ground. The potential for such series to raise to profile of the game in these nations is second to none.
We also need to make sure the teams not involved in the global tier(s) of our championship are also provided with regular, competitive cricket. Overhauling the regional tournaments is not straight forward because each ICC region has a different geography and a different number and standard amongst their members and therefore each region could require a unique solution. That said, designs based around the old World Cricket League or UEFA Nations League with promotion and relegation on an annual basis could provide all participating nations with the frequent and contextual cricket.
Perhaps because T20s – both international games and franchise leagues – are already most popular (and financially lucrative for those at the top of the ladder), it isn’t necessary to have a structured global T20 Championship. But having one could certainly add context and jeopardy to the existing cricket calendar, as well as providing opportunities for emerging teams to gain exposure and develop, and that should be the point, shouldn’t it?
Coming soon: Cricket for a New Decade Part III – Improving Existing Structures