Cricket’s Twenty20 World Cup gets into full swing on Saturday when Australia play South Africa in Abu Dhabi and England face reigning champions West Indies in Dubai. But if you are only joining now, because England and the other supposed “big guns” are playing, you have missed a week of extraordinary action, with eight less prestigious cricketing countries fighting for places in the so-called “Super 12s” stage of the tournament.
The eight who contested the preliminary stages were a motley bunch: Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Ireland, all of which are Test-playing countries of relatively recent vintage; Scotland, which aspires to Test status and won a famous victory against England in a 50-over match in 2018; the Netherlands, where cricket has been played for two centuries and which beat England at Lord’s in the 2009 World Cup; and three true minnows – Oman, Namibia and Papua New Guinea. Namibia’s win over the Netherlands on Wednesday was in its own way as big a shock as that unexpected victory by the Dutch over England in 2009. They have deservedly qualified for the cup’s last stage.
This preliminary week, by putting the smaller cricketing nations centre stage, has been refreshing. Sport in the professional era has tended to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. In cricket, India, England and Australia – the “big three” – have sought to take a bigger share of money and power. The rigours of Test cricket favour the best-resourced nations, and even 1980s legends West Indies now struggle in Tests. But Twenty20 levels the playing field, and one hurricane innings – like that of David Wiese in the Namibia-Netherlands match – can turn a game. Afghanistan, who have automatic entry to the Super 12s on the strength of their recent record, have risen rapidly in Twenty20 cricket, though whether the Taliban appreciate the genius of leg-break bowler Rashid Khan is a moot point.
Cricket, which aspires to be a truly global sport, needs countries from outside the magic circle to break through. Rugby union faces the same conundrum – how to escape domination by the world’s top six or eight nations. Though both sports should be careful what they wish for: in football, Fifa wants to accommodate so many nations that it suggests the bizarre idea of holding a World Cup every two years, but not letting the same teams compete in successive tournaments.
The International Cricket Council has 94 associate members, including such unlikely outposts as Brazil, the Philippines and Russia. Maybe one day one of these countries will be as strong as England. Change is the essence of sport, which is why elites that try to create a closed shop by denying promotion and relegation should be resisted. Some historians posit France as the birthplace of cricket, and French cricket is overdue a renaissance. As for the US, they produced one of the world’s greatest ever swing bowlers in Bart King, who led the Gentlemen of Philadelphia to an innings victory over Australia in 1893. Had it not been for America’s historic error in choosing baseball over cricket in the latter part of the 19th century, the global game would now look very different and the World Series would really mean something. Come back, America. There’s all to play for.