It arrived without much fanfare, but at last, it has arrived. The Cricket World Cup Super League begins on Thursday with the first ODI between England and Ireland and sets the ball rolling for the top tier of the 2023 Cricket World Cup qualification pathway.
The Super League will be a 13-team tournament; the twelve full members and the Netherlands, who won the 2017 World Cricket League Championship. Each team will play eight 3-match series agreed in advance in the coming two years. At the conclusion of the competition, the top 7 sides, India excluded, will qualify directly for the 2023 World Cup. The remaining 5 will play the World Cup Qualifier, expected to be held late in 2022.
The competetion would have began with Ireland hosting Bangladesh in Belfast in May, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced postponements of the first 9 series. Finally about to begin, here are some key themes to look out for as the tournament progresses.
Since there are 13 teams, but only 8 series per team, each team will only play 2/3rds of their possible opponents, creating an incomplete round-robin. This is largely a political outcome – India and Pakistan refuse to play each other, as do England and Zimbabwe. Although the global governing body, the ICC appears powerless to create these fixtures, though oddly, are able to schedule the equivalent fixtures in the Women’s game.
The compromise reached is one where each member has been able to choose its 8 opponents. This has created an imbalanced fixture list in which some sides have it easier than others. This isn’t a deal breaker, as the outcome has generally been that the top sides have the toughest fixtures, and the lower ranked sides are on average playing weaker opposition. On the whole this is likely to improve the competitive balance of the tournament. Though it is worth noting, Sri Lanka have it remarkably tough, whilst Afghanistan have the easiest ride.
All the series were agreed in advance, with a draft schedule derived in 2018. Additional series and matches can still be played outside of this, though they will be little more than friendlies.
World Cup Qualification
For the first time, every nation (except India) is going to have play and win games to qualify for the World Cup. Whilst the top sides should qualify with relative ease, for the teams around 8th on the ICC rankings, every match is going to count. Certainly, this will create some intense games for Bangladesh, West Indies and Sri Lanka, the latter under increased pressure due to the nature of their draw. A poor run of form for Pakistan or South Africa could see them caught up in the rat-race. Equally, should Afghanistan or Ireland upset the apple cart and find a streak of form, they could put pressure on the more established sides.
Perhaps just as important, but likely to be much less discussed by mainstream media, is the threat of relegation. The top twelve sides at the end of the tournament will be automatically returned for the next edition after the 2023 World Cup. The fate of the side that finishes 13th will be determined by their performance at the World Cup Qualifier, either retained in the Super League, or relegated to League 2, regardless of their membership status.
This puts huge pressure on the struggling Zimbabwe. Having faced ODI series whitewashes against Netherlands and Ireland last summer, they will know they need to up their game to retain their spot in the top division. Ireland, transitioning to a young side, may also need to watch their backs. For the Dutch, this is the opportunity to prove their mettle. Should they finish in the top twelve they will retain their position for another 4 years and the additional funding that comes with it, as well as bolstering their full membership campaign.
Certainly, there is more to this new creation than meets the eye. The increased context given to each ODI series is very much welcome, and the stories it offers could well be fascinating.