Is the ACC pathway model the way forward for other Associate Cricket regions?

The brand-new Asia Cup pathway events are an attractive and a refreshing revamp of the existing structures

Rohit Sharma and Babar Azam pose with the Asia Cup Trophy
Rohit Sharma and Babar Azam pose with the Asia Cup Trophy

Could Cricket benefit from ditching the word “Qualifiers” from its lexicon?

That’s the view held by some in the wider Associate Cricket community, who argue that ICC should move away from labelling its regional and subregional T20 World Cup qualification events as “Qualifiers”. The rationale behind the idea is in increasing the commercial potential of the aforementioned tournaments by making them more marketable and therefore more enticing for broadcasters.

ACC’s revamped pathways

The discussion comes on the back of a recent tweet by Asian Cricket Council (ACC) President Jay Shah showcasing the ACC events calendar for 2023 and 2024. The newly created three tier structure is organised, attractive and a refreshing change from the often-haphazard structure of regional cricket.  

The inclusive pathway gives every ACC member nation a genuine shot at qualification to the Asia Cup against the big guns of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Making up the second tier Premier Cup are UAE, Nepal, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia who will be joined by two qualifiers from the ten team Challenger Cup, the third and final tier. Additionally, there is an eight team Men’s Emerging Teams Asia Cup consisting of five Full Member A teams and the top three finishers from the Premier Cup.

Teams like Bhutan will compete in the ACC Men’s Challenger Cup from 2023 (Photo: ICC)

With similar arrangements made for the women’s structure (albeit with a slightly lesser number of teams) and a U19 Men’s Asia Cup, the regional tournaments are a major upgrade on the Western and Eastern Asian subregional qualifiers of old. It provides more personality to each of the standalone events as well as a chance to build a long-lasting brand through individualised marketing and promotion. Plus, it offers newer ACC & ICC members like Mongolia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan a chance at entering the pathway seamlessly in the future. The only thing missing is to link the Asia Cup and its feeder events to World Cup qualification!

Maximising the commercial potential of ICC regional and subregional events

It’s important to highlight however that other regions such as Europe, Americas, East Asia-Pacific or Africa don’t possess anywhere near the financial resources that ACC do; courtesy of its five big Full Members and the billion plus passionate fanbase. Which actually makes it more imperative to start thinking about increasing the commercial potential of the regional events; particularly given ICC’s binning of the global qualifier and the poor quality of broadcast streams available on ICC.TV for the regional events.

According to Vanuatu Cricket Association (VCA) CEO and Emerging Cricket Podcast co-host Tim Cutler, rebranding the qualifiers is a no brainer.  

“With the new pathways for the Men’s T20 World Cup, the more the ICC can do to build the profile of the regional qualifiers the better. The idea of re-branding qualifiers as regional championships is a good idea that would create a clearer identity of the event to your average fan and would add an incentive for teams to be champion of their region.”

Cutler is also bullish about eliminating automatic qualification slots for the T20 World Cup for all but the hosts. In his view, the regional championships would benefit from the additional exposure from having major nations competing in them. “One only has to look to the Asia Cup to see the value in having ‘all-in’ regional events and while the four other ICC regions don’t have the number of Full Members Asia does, involving the FM’s in other regional qualifiers would be a boon for the growth of the game.”

ACC Development Committee Chairman Mahinda Vallipuram is also open to the idea. “It is teamwork. To be inclusive and grow the game for all, we have to look at ways and perhaps think out of the box from time to time,” he stated in an email.

Comparison with Rugby and Hockey

Regional cup competitions are already a reality in other popular team sports like rugby union and field hockey.

Rugby Africa Cup 2022 in action (Photo: World Rugby)

In Africa, the biennial Rugby Africa Cup underwent a major revamp three years ago and now doubles up as a World Cup qualification event in the relevant years, with the winner securing a direct spot and the runner-up heading to a repechage tournament. A 2020 press release by Rugby Africa specifically referred to the revamp as an attempt at creating a “modernised and more inclusive set up to give opportunities to more teams and increase the attractiveness of the game.”  

Encouragingly, the tournament picked up decent broadcast deals and was a smash hit from a fan perspective, leading to record breaking reach and engagement rates on Rugby Africa’s social media platforms. Using Facebook as a primary driver, stats revealed a 68% increase in reach and 95% increase in page likes when compared to previous periods. Similar regional championships also take place in Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania.  

For field hockey, the tradition goes back a lot further. Since 1975, the sport has been using continental cup competitions to determine its World Cup qualifiers. In Football, UEFA, the continental European body of governance, has supplanted the international friendlies of yesteryear with a new competition called the UEFA Nations League. While qualifiers are still held, the Nations League provides additional opportunities for teams to qualify for the European Championship (Euro) and the World Cup.

Portugal celebrates winning the inaugral UEFA Nations League in 2019 (Photo: Dreamtime)

The above examples demonstrate how important context is for having meaningful sporting contests that drive fan engagement. It’s precisely why the scrapping of the ODI Super League was such a retrograde move. Even though the subregional qualifiers for T20Is carry plenty of context with literally a World Cup spot on the line, it has the potential to further increase its commercial and broadcast value as a standalone continental cup competition, which rewards the top finishers with a World Cup slot. Hopefully, ICC is taking notes!

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