Thailand and the fallacy of the ICC’s global growth strategy

When the ICC launched its ‘strategy for Global Growth’ on November 24, many were rightly skeptical. Almost two weeks later, Rod Lyall’s refrain, ‘ICC and Global Growth: by their deeds shall ye know them,’ rings truer than ever.

Those deeds came one after the other at the Women’s World Cup Qualifier 2021 in Zimbabwe, hot on the heels of the ICC’s strategy announcement.

They bear repeating.

First, after the USA proudly proclaimed the advent of WODI status ahead of their opener against Bangladesh, the ICC very quietly reneged on what appeared to be a previous commitment to equity of status for all games at the Qualifier. Games involving the Associate members at the women’s World Cup Qualifier would not be granted ODI status, as they are in the men’s World Cup Qualifier. Emerging Cricket found out about this development after inquiring with ESPNCricinfo about why they had not listed Ireland vs Netherlands on Day two as a WODI.

Second, after heralding the power of ‘digital platforms to create direct relationships with 300 million fans by 2032,’ the stream at the Qualifier barely worked. Give them time, you say. Eleven years is a long time away. But perhaps those 300 million fans were never intended to be Dutch, Irish, Thai, American, Zimbabwean, Sri Lankan, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, or West Indian fans of the women’s game anyway.

Third, when the Omicron variant forced the cancellation of the remainder of the tournament, the ICC awarded “qualification slots…as per team rankings, in keeping with the tournament’s playing conditions,” ensuring that West Indies, Pakistan and Bangladesh qualified for the World Cup and Ireland and Sri Lanka qualified for the next three-year cycle of the ICC Women’s Championship.

In each of these three instances, the ICC’s Global Growth agenda was usurped by something else. In the case of the stream, that something else may just have been a problem with the strength of WiFi coverage at one of the grounds in Harare. But can you imagine the consequences of such an oversight at a tournament involving England, Australia, or, dare we say it, India?

Much has already been written about Saturday’s decision to cancel the Qualifier and award qualification slots to five of the tournament’s Full Members. In Emerging Cricket’s Sunday editorial, we called out the farcical nature of an exclusionary decision based on an exclusionary ranking table.

Fellow Emerging Cricket contributor Tom Grunshaw argued that by the time the ICC were at that the point of cancelling the tournament, they had no choice but to award the qualification slots on the basis of rankings (or pre-tournament seedings or final positions in the ICC Women’s World Cup Qualifier 2017).

But as Nick Skinner notes, there were many other practical and realistic options available to the ICC that would have aligned or even typified its newly minted strategy for global growth: postpone the rest of the tournament to February, or March; organise one of any number of playoff variations; organise a preliminary round at the World Cup; dare we say it, expand the World Cup itself.

At absolute minimum, the ICC could have postponed the decision to award qualification slots, attempted to convene the relevant power brokers around a table, and presented the above suite of options to them.

Alas, it is likely that such a round table may have arrived at the same decision as the one actually taken last Saturday, given that some of its main protagonists are the ones who have been granted World Cup qualification. Such an outcome would have represented the gordian knot of power politics at the heart of the sport’s governance.

Perhaps this consultation took place in some kind of rapid, truncated manner. We will never know. To the outsider then, a decision was made, and depending on who you ask, poorly justified or not justified at all.

As opaque as the press releases that accompany such decisions are, the decisions themselves are almost never made in the true interests of global growth, rather in the interests of protecting status or revenue, or in unshackling the potential of prospective markets.

The irony of the Thailand women’s cricket team introducing young Australian girls to the sport at the T20 World Cup is not lost on most people (Photo: Nishadh Rego)

But here’s the thing about the unaccountable powers that govern international cricket: they can unmake decisions as quickly as they make them, especially in the face of shifting public pressure and opinion.

Remember when a decision was taken at the ICC’s Annual Conference in 2011 to the number of places at the 2015 World Cup, after the Council came under fire for initially cutting the number of places to ten and excluding the Associates?

Let’s turn to the consequences of the ICC’s decision on Saturday. The tournament’s most successful Associate team, Thailand, arguably lost out on a place in the World Cup, and three years of guaranteed competition against some of the world’s best teams.

Whilst they do not promise a big, lucrative domestic market relative to some other members, Thailand exemplify cricket’s global growth. As I wrote more than two years ago, ‘the country’s success in the women’s game has come in spite of the absence of money, a domestic competition, a depth of players to choose from and any real cricketing culture.’

Having grown so quickly and with no major additional investments from the ICC itself as far as I am aware, Thailand are the wildest successes of the ICC’s Global Growth strategy manifest. The ICC admitted as much during the Qualifier with its latest video heralding Thailand’s ‘heartwarming rise.’

Earlier this year, when Sri Lanka Cricket were deep in slumber, the Cricket Association of Thailand (CAT) broke new ground yet again by organising and paying for (with a significant chunk of its annual budget, no doubt) a fifteen-match tour of Zimbabwe and South Africa in preparation for the Qualifier. Preparatory tours of this length are unheard of anywhere in the women’s game, let alone in Associate women’s cricket. Such is the Association’s foresight and belief in the ability of this team. As it stands, these preparations paid off on the field, but they were rendered meaningless in the face of the ICC’s decision on Saturday.

It is impossible to know how the ICC and its Full Members will react to the disquiet in many quarters over consequences of Saturday’s decision for Thailand.

But any reconsideration of this decision must take into account both Thailand’s unique circumstances, and the structural problems that caused this debacle.

Every now and then, an Associate nation performs so well at every given opportunity, over a long period of time, that the glass ceiling shatters and they get promoted to the next level. They are accorded status, and invited into (some of the) heady discussions about television rights and profit. Ireland and Afghanistan, led by the success of their men’s teams, exemplify this trajectory.

Thailand are arguably the first to begin knocking on this ceiling by the virtue of the success of their women’s team. Whether their performances at this Qualifier and the aforementioned disquiet is enough to warrant serious consideration of their elevation into the World Cup or to WODI status remains to be seen. I would argue that they absolutely deserve a place in the ICC Women’s Championship.

But what is even more important is for all Associates to have access to regular, high quality women’s international cricket, WODI status and inclusion in the ODI rankings table. Just as is the case in the T20I arena.

If all else fails, Thailand will turn their attention to the Asian Games 2022, for which there is no qualifier, and cancellations will certainly not result in medals being granted to India, or Pakistan based on rankings. This is perhaps a precursor to the Olympics 2028, and a world in which international cricket may yet be synonymous with growth and meritocracy.

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