CWC Super League: Impure, not impotent

Ireland ODI Super League
Ireland recorded a famous win in their ODI Super League series against England

“We construct a philosophy of failure, which finds in defeat a form of justification and a proof of the purity of our principles. Certainly, the impotent are pure.”

Gough Whitlam, who would go on to become Australia’s 21st prime minister, spoke these words in a 1967 speech, shortly after taking leadership of the Australian Labor Party. The ALP was in the wilderness, having spent nearly two decades in opposition, but Whitlam’s attempts to reform the party were initially met with resistance as he tried to focus on winning back power rather than the perfect policy platform. Indeed, it was reported at the time that his speech was booed by the fiercely ideological Victorian branch. But Whitlam’s impure pragmatism revived the party, and ultimately led them to power for the first time in a generation.

Whitlam’s comments to his colleagues can also serve as a warning to those radicals among us advocating for cricket’s growth. Certainly, I sympathise with the desire for purity; indeed, my own leanings are towards sweeping change in cricket’s global structures. The long-lamented Woolf Report would be a good start. But reflecting on the recently-concluded ODI series between England and Ireland, it seems clear that the Cricket World Cup Super League is a victory for the emerging game. Is it ideal? Is it a panacea for years of insularity at the top of cricket? Does it uphold the purity of our principles? 

Certainly not. It is an unwieldy, awkward compromise between competing interests, made to measure for the boardroom politics of the ICC. Elegant tournament design is secondary to the realities of securing enough Full Member votes in Dubai. If a camel is a horse designed by committee, the CWC Super League is the Bactrian of cricket tournaments. But, where other more glamorous attempts at reform have failed, this is a camel which successfully passed through the eye of a needle.

A decade, or even half a decade ago when the Big 3 reforms were in full swing, it would have been unimaginable for Full Members to face the level of meritocracy that has been built into the Super League. For the first time in ODI history, World Cup qualification is determined by on-field results rather than membership status, and consistently bad performances could see a Full Member team relegated from the top tier. This, coupled with the inclusion of the Netherlands, is genuine progress for the game outside its historical strongholds. Even for smaller FMs like Zimbabwe and Ireland (which have struggled to arrange fixtures against higher-ranked opposition), the guarantee of regular cricket is a welcome source of stability in their schedule. For the Netherlands, it is transformational: over the 2 years of the Super League, they will play 24 ODIs against Full Members. This is just one fewer than the 25 they’ve played against FMs since their debut in the 1996 World Cup.

Speaking to Emerging Cricket, Netherlands coach Ryan Campbell was enthusiastic about the prospect of an extended run on the world stage: “For the first time ever our players will get the chance to play against the best players in the world on a consistent basis. It will also give them an opportunity to be seen by cricket fans and administrators from around the world, and who knows what opportunities may come from it in franchise leagues around the world?”

The new capacity for future planning is also a huge positive for Campbell: “For the first time in our history, we can have our 3-year window fully planned with matches as well as being able to sell TV rights and sponsorship deals. All Associate teams want to plan ahead, it’s one of the frustrating things we generally deal with.”

As well as a reliable schedule, the CWC Super League structure means that teams have an opportunity to find their rhythm over the course of the 3-match series. It certainly benefited Ireland in their fixtures against England, where a dire performance in the first ODI was followed by a more competitive effort in the second, and a rousing victory in the third. This was the first time in Ireland’s history that they had played more than 2 matches in a series against England. The added context of the league also meant that the third-match victory was not (contrary to some reports) a dead rubber; Ireland took home crucial points against the world’s top-ranked team and significantly boosted their chances of avoiding relegation.

Staying above the relegation zone, stealing points from the ladder leaders, these are concepts familiar to many sports fans. ODI cricket finally being played in a coherent league also makes it easier to explain what’s at stake for newcomers to the game, rather than the historical hodgepodge of random bilateral series. It is a boon to the sport and specifically the 50-over format. 

Of course, the new system has its limits. There is just one slot available to Associates, and the truncated league is convoluted at first glance. The tradeoff for an improved structure at the top also seems to have been reducing opportunities for teams lower down. Below the 32 participants in 50-over leagues, there is now almost no one-day cricket planned for the rest of the Associate member nations. And the fact that promotion and relegation is determined by standings at the CWC Qualifier (rather than, say, a direct playoff) could lead to some messy scenarios at the event: for instance, it is possible for a lower-ranked team to qualify unbeaten to the World Cup but not the Super League, and for the 13th-ranked Super League side to lose every match but one and still retain their place.

But it is still a major step in the right direction, and the ICC is to be applauded for approving it. We in the emerging game also need to recognise and celebrate the benefits of the league, imperfect as it is. There is a place for ideological purity, but also for pragmatism. Now is not a time to let perfection be the enemy of genuine progress. Indeed, now is precisely the time to take what we can get and build on it, as the next two years may well determine the direction of Associate cricket for a generation – a well-received and successful CWC Super League cycle will help those allies within the ICC to build a case for continued progressive changes, like further expanding opportunities for Associates (especially at global events), pooling TV rights or Olympic participation.

“It is true that some parties exist only as pressure groups,” Gough Whitlam told the ALP in his 1967 speech. “I did not seek and do not want the leadership of Australia’s largest pressure group.” Like Whitlam, those working on the Development Committee to grow the game know that purity of principles is worthless if it doesn’t translate to votes. We would do well to remember that.

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