World T20 Qualifiers Preview - The lead-up and format
With only a little exagerration, Tuesday 13th March might well mark the day that cricket became a truly global sport. It is fair to say that no associate tournament has ever been as widely promoted, or as keenly anticipated; profiling articles of most participating teams have appeared on cricinfo and their prospects discussed on various podcasts - albeit by people with limited knowledge of associate cricket.
Incremental increases in associate coverage have been occuring for some time, driven by the sustained success of Ireland, the romantic story of the skillful Afghanistan, and a gradual increase in mainstream coverage in Canada and the United States partly led by ESPN. It has been helped considerably through the implementation of meritocratic tournaments; whereas the ICC trophy tended to sneak up on people, the flawed World Cricket League allows people to track associate progress. The World T20 Qualifiers were a step forward again. The multiple regional tournaments played over the course of a year were interesting throughout, even with the limited coverage many of them received.
The highlight was Asia, which not only had limited visual coverage, via Nepalese tv, but the biggest upset, with the U.A.E. failing to qualify for the finals, losing out to Nepal and Oman by the barest of margins.
The qualifier in the U.A.E. promises to be just as close, with a nearly professional standard of play, and, most excitingly, proper coverage. From a purely comercial perspective, ESPNStar's decision to provide tv and online coverage for the playoffs on the last three days is a massive event. While associate nations have been in all the world cups, their treatment has tended towards patronising, their presence to fill up numbers in a tournament format designed to exclude them. Here, in their own tournament, the true depth and competitiveness of these nations will be apparent.
Probably more important in the long term will be QuipuTV's online coverage from the Global Cricket Academy, with 14 games across 7 days, using 4 cameras. Online coverage of cricket has lagged some way behind other sports, but the last year has seen a massive leap forward, and it is reasonable to expect further, low-cost coverage of associate cricket in the future - if the ICC continues to fund it. All 16 teams will be covered at some point, most more than once; a great opportunity to properly assess the depth of associate cricket, and for their national supporters (few as they sometimes might be) to see their national side in action.
The tournament itself has an odd, but fair format, favouring the best teams in the group stage, but allowing every team to dream, at least for the first few games.
The group stage will be played over 8 days: four rounds, a rest day, then three more rounds. This is insanely compact - funny how easy it is to make a short tournament without tv companises making unhelpful demands - and with teams needing to win almost every game to qualify, will favour sides with the depth to cover for injuries and poor performances from their star players.
The first qualifier pits the two group winners against each other. The winner progressing to the final, and the WT20 proper; the loser to the second qualifier played on the final morning.
The second and third placed teams in each group go into a four team playoff; effectively a round-of-16 and quarter-final. The winner of the playoff will enter the second qualifier against the losing group winner, for the final place in the WT20, and qualifer final.
Assuming equal skills, the group winners have a 75% chance of qualifying and second and third just 12.5% each: winning the group is essential to maximising a team's chance of qualifying. With so many games, it will take more than a slice of luck for the weaker teams to progress even to the playoffs, but at this point, optimism reigns (as it should).
Unprecedented coverage, a growing community of associate supporters online, the promise of a large number of close and competitive games, more riding on each game than almost any other cricket match outside the world cup semis/final, and a healthy number of first class players representing their nations - an increase in quality but not so many as to question whether they are representative. With more teams than either the WT20 or the World Cup, this tournament should be a big deal. Apparently, for the first time ever, it might be.
9th March, 2012 00:50:01