There is something at once compelling and infuriatingly artificial about the T20 World Cup’s group stage. As the tournament favourites put their feet up or indulge in a friendly or two, we are treated to the slightly ignominious spectacle of eight sides fighting, with only days left until the leading nations’ entrance, for the chance to play. It is ignominious not because the sides who have graced the competition over the last five days have been weak – quite the opposite. It is ignominious because they so clearly deserve the right to take on all comers, to take part in just as many games as the full-member sides who do not make the last four.
This early cull is so often a part of the competition that the full ICC members have waved at on their way past, the cricketing equivalent of carefully escorted tourists going behind the iron curtain and viewing model villages whose doors they never have to open. Seeing Sri Lanka suffer a scare and the West Indies bundled out when those doors did swing ajar should rather open the world’s eyes.
As for the Associate Nations, there can be little doubt that they know that they belong. To watch David Wiese, the world cup’s most spectacularly hirsute captain, so nearly drag his team back from the abyss with a battling then blistering half century, was to watch a man who deserves the chance to play more regularly against the game’s big names. Karthik Meiyappan’s hat trick, Ireland’s stirring comeback, Bas de Leede’s poise under the pressure of a run chase. These have been fine cricketing moments that do not deserve to be endings but exploits that they have a chance to match in extra games.
Nobody wants a bloated tournament, but the beauty of T20 is that bloating is hard to achieve. Would an extra game a day really be such an imposition on the schedule? Would it be that hard to organize a 16 team full group stage tournament, with a view to reaching a 24 team event soon. An event that features the likes of Nepal, Oman, Papua New Guinea, Canada and Hong Kong would only lay a truer claim to being a global event. What an incentive for those hovering just below that point in the rankings, like the USA (26) or Italy (29) to fund cricket with a potential World Cup berth on the table. What a way to grow the game.
As it is, relatively closed shop World Cups have scuttled countries responsible for some of the most memorable moments. Twenty stone Dwayne Leverock’s salmon-like 2007 leap and catch is one of the World Cup’s great images but his Bermuda side languish at 33rd in the T20 world rankings, a long way from achieving qualification when the tournament is limited to 16 sides.
There is of course a strand of argument that the Associate nations and the World Cup itself both benefit from the glare of a preliminary group stage. After all, one might argue that more eyes are more likely to be on Zimbabwe vs Scotland when it is a winner takes all match to progress than they might be as a dead rubber in a more sprawling Group Stage. The Associates have, by virtue of this preliminary stage, had the stage to themselves, have had the chance to play the starring roles in a way they might not get when the great and the Gielgud emerge from their changing rooms.
But there are stars here too. And, with international cricket arguably threatened more than ever by the web of franchise T20 leagues around the world, wouldn’t seeing more of the game’s best breakout talent on the international stage be a boon to the ICC and to fans? If the only time fans get concentrated bursts of Vriitya Aravind or Sikandar Raza is in the Hundred or the IPL or the Big Bash League or South Africa’s new tournament , then that gives those tournaments an edge over what should be the pinnacle of the game, international competition.
Nobody wants to lower the quality of the product, but one of the joys of T20 is that you don’t have to. Sides with a smaller talent pool can compete – as the defeats of West Indies and Sri Lanka in this tournament have reiterated strongly in 2022. As indeed the Netherlands have twice highlighted by beating England in T20 world cups. As Afghanistan showed by beating the West Indies team who would go on to lift the trophy in 2016.
All eight sides in the preliminary group stage and every player who has pulled on one of their shirts have proven – this year and in years gone by – that they deserve their place not as a warm up act to get the crowd going, but as part of Act 1 proper, and, with the right support, one of them might just make Act 2 soon enough.