The high-stakes Battle of Bangi ahead of Italy and Vanuatu as three others claim Challenge League tickets

Images during the 2024 ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup Challenge League Play-Off Super Six Stage match between Tanzania and Italy held at Bayuemas Oval, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 01 March 2024 Photo by: Peter Lim / International Cricket Council RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE.

Kuala Lumpur: It’s been dubbed the US$795,000 match at UKM Oval.

Italy face Vanuatu in a one-off battle for the final Challenge League spot on the road to the 2027 Cricket World Cup. 

Whilst the figure sounds lucrative when added up, it’s a calculation, deduced by a glance at the new ICC funding model for teams in the Challenge League system, that in fact paints a picture of just how important a win of a potentially infinitesimal margin can be.

For the winner, it’s $265,000 per year to keep things ticking along in total ICC funding, plus the 15 List A matches in the Challenge League cycle, and the prospect of moving higher up the 50-over tiers. For the loser, an air of uncertainty in terms of cricketing future falling out of the Cricket World Cup pyramid, with the cut of funding leading to difficult discussions with employees, harder negotiations for prospective sponsors, and a bleak outlook as to how to plot returning to “challenge” again through the same competition in four years time.

Both teams would have wanted their Challenge League spots sewn up before D-Day in the outskirts of the Malaysian capital. For Tanzania, Bahrain and Kuwait, their seat at the Challenge League table is booked through a combination of carry-over points from the group stage, and success in the Super Sixes. Kuwait and Tanzania meet in a game to decide who tops the tournament standings, while Bahrain meet Bermuda, with the boys of the Atlantic bowing out of contention with defeat in their previous match.

As some Full Members struggle to cover one player’s central contract for the same amount, the figure is close to a full budget for national boards. Organisation employees, a contracted player pool in some cases, plus programs and initiatives in order to grow the game. Teams at this level are forced to draw up multiple budgets, and the figure to work with could be determined by a single delivery of a white cricket ball.

This is nothing new in Associate circles, with a notable example being Canada’s meeting with USA in the old World Cricket League structure in 2019. Nine down and limping in their chase in WCL2, USA’s final-wicket partnership ensured the elimination of their rivals from the inaugural League 2 competition, stripping them of ODI status and costing them more than a million US Dollars in future funding.

Four years is a career-defining period of time, as Canada can attest, fielding a new-look team in 2024. For their sake, their run of form in 2023 ensured a path back to ODI status and League 2 cricket, though there has been delay in planning and development.

For those in their 30s it’s time to perhaps look at their future in cricket with funding cut, while those in their early 20s have decisions of their study/play balance almost made for them. With no money, there are few prospects in the game, and no certainty of improvement in four years time. Not to mention the emergence of future cricketing powers on a path to usurp you.

Re-entry back to this competition would need a probable T20I ranking at least in the early 30s having eyeballed the numbers. This realisation makes prospects harder for Vanuatu, whose little cross-pollination with teams in other regions and against higher-ranking teams means rising is near impossible at 47th. By contrast, Italy, having mixed it with the likes of Scotland and Ireland in regional T20I action gives them room to move, not to mention their T20I ranking of 32nd at present.

Curiously, the two teams are the final teams alive having been forced down from the old Challenge League cycle. Malaysia’s batting struggled even with the advantage of playing in their own backyard, while Bermuda’s gameplan in some respects was unclear, relying on individual performances to avoid the awkward conversations. Upon defeat to Vanuatu on Friday to fall out of contention, downcast Bermudian captain Delray Rawlins outlined the need to start again.

“We just have to go back, the people up above as well, everyone needs to be involved,” Rawlins explained upon their elimination having lost to Vanuatu on the penultimate matchday.

“We’re going to rebuild and go again with some of the youngsters. We have some good quality youngsters at home and now it’s time, we have a few years to bloom them and make sure that they’re ready for the next tilt.” 

The prospect of Italy and Vanuatu potentially falling down the tiers can too be reasoned by the emergence of potential powers in regions that have primed collectively. Bahrain and Kuwait have profited through Asian Cricket Council cricket, trends in migration from the subcontinent, and external financial support. One only needs to look at the Qatari cricketing push in the last Challenge League cycle for the same blueprint. As for Tanzania, their proximity to Kenya and Uganda, plus regional play against other bigger African nations has proved to be a recipe for progress.

On paper at least, the Italians are heavy favourites over Vanuatu at UKM Oval on Sunday, to the point where their Challenge League tickets on another day could and probably should have been booked already. A defeat to Bahrain in their first Super Sixes encounter opened the door for the Ni-Vanuatu men, whose win over Bermuda, their second do-or-die triumph already in the campaign, leads to the quasi final for the spot.

Most crucially, it’s down to the tournament playing conditions that make the contest a battle at all, with the head-to-head record of teams on level points being the first tiebreaker over Net Run Rate. It’s the same tie-breaker that helped Vanuatu overcome Malaysia to take the final Super Sixes spot, beating them at the Selangor Turf Club.

Gareth Berg has been at the coalface for Italian cricket for over a decade.

Helping Italy end the last ditch Vanuatu run is assistant coach and Ireland legend Kevin O’Brien, who works alongside captain/coach Gareth Berg. Alongside Berg’s extensive experience in Associate matches carrying such bearing, O’Brien too understands the privilege of pressure, through Ireland’s World Cup wins and ultimate push for Full Membership.

“These are the types of games you enjoy playing,” O’Brien insists. “Pressure games that have so much riding on them. 

“You have to embrace that pressure and want to perform under those conditions.”

“The mood in the camp is great, we have prepared really well for these types of moments. The boys have confidence, and know that each player has to do their own job.” 

Italy have had the luxury of rotating their bowlers and shuffling their batting order thanks to a clean bill of health, though Vanuatu have been forced into change through injury and the stifling humidity that has thrown several players around.

Sometimes victory can be the best remedy though. After their victory over Bermuda, the mood of the camp is up in the eyes of left-arm orthodox spinner and Vanuatu Cricket Association CEO Tim Cutler, who understands the significance of Sunday’s match more than anybody.

“I really think we have a great spirit and the team are coming off a fighting victory against Bermuda. I don’t think the boys could be in a better place. 

“But (the result) is going to have serious ramifications across a number of facets and what we’re looking to achieve this year. 

“All the way from community development, administration, domestic cricket, education. All are going to be impacted as well as high performance. We’ll also have to put development of a ground on another island on hold.”

Vanuatu celebrate a Tim Cutler wicket.
(Syahrul Azhar Rahim)

Sunday’s match begins at 9:30am local time in Kuala Lumpur, and broadcast live on ICC.tv and FanCode in parts of Asia.

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