Cricket World Cup 2019: Qualification, fairness and the third umpire
- The 2018 ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifiers was a hard-fought tournament in recent times. However, only 10 of its 34 matches were televised.
One of the many things that make modern cricket unique is the say television has in shaping the game. Scheduling of matches, tournaments or entire tours can depend on the calendar of the broadcasting right-holders. Most matches in the upcoming World Cup have been scheduled as daytime encounters, mostly keeping in mind the audience in the Indian subcontinent.
The International Cricket Council seems to have finally stamped in the requirement for 'two different coloured kits' primarily out of concern for small-screen aesthetes. If reports are to be believed, India might indeed sport an 'orange' away kit.
However, the most definitive aspect that ties the broadcasters so intimately to the sport is the television-aided umpiring system. From the advent of the 'Third Umpire' in 1992 to the employment of the Decision Review System of this day, technology has improved leaps and bounds over the years, which has, among other things, contributed to an increasingly diligent decision-making mechanism.
From adjudicating on dismissals to ruling on violations of the ICC Code of Conduct, camera evidence has become indispensable in all top-tier cricket. Such is its inalienability that even the round of warm-up matches - which are not awarded ODI status - currently underway in the lead-up to the ICC Cricket World Cup, are being played with all seriousness to the extent of utilizing DRS.
It is easy to forget that television-aided umpiring is not a sine qua non for the official conduct of top-tier cricket. In this very month, three bilateral ODI series were played without this facility - between Scotland and their guests in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, respectively, and between Ireland and Afghanistan (all of these matches were, however, webcast on YouTube, as covered by cameras from few inflexible vantage points).
The availability of technology depends on whether the host cricket board has a contract with television broadcasters, in the absence of which it is economically impossible to provide adequate infrastructure for the third umpire.
That is okay since mutual agreements form the basis for bilateral cricket, and non-ICC multilateral tournaments (barring Asia Cup) are usually invitational. The anomaly threatens to run out of favour when one looks at the ICC's ODI superstructure. The 10-team format for England and Wales 2019 has received a lukewarm response and has been criticized by detractors alleging a virtual shut-down on associate teams.
In fact, this would be the first ever World Cup to feature only full members. However, this is also the first edition of the tournament where any full member - Zimbabwe - has missed out on booking a berth in the finals. It is also to be noted that Afghanistan was still an associate member when they qualified.
The curious case of the World Cup Qualifiers
Precisely because the stakes were so steep, the 2018 ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifiers was one of the more hard-fought ICC tournaments in recent times. With 10 teams, the pool was as numerous as the final pot and included 8 teams with ODI status, among which 2 were erstwhile full members (in West Indies and Zimbabwe).
A total of 34 matches were played out, of which 30 matches - across the Group League and Super Six stages, and the Final - had a direct bearing on qualification. 22 of these matches were ODIs. Only 10 matches were televised, which also meant these were the only games where technology was available to umpires.
Interestingly, these 10 matches included a List A match between West Indies and the Netherlands, but excluded all matches in Group B, along with a couple of matches in the Super Six stage (all matches in this phase enjoyed ODI status). More importantly, there was no third umpire in 5 of the 15 encounters among the top six teams across these two stages.
Such irregularity can lead to a few concerns. It introduces inequities amongst participant teams whereby some may feel prejudiced to the privilege of others. West Indies played the most number of matches with television-aided umpiring, which is understandable on economic terms if the official broadcaster was contracted to provide live feeds for a handful of games in the tournament.
In comparison, the United Arab Emirates had the short end of the stick, with just one match that was telecast. The other Super Six teams were also unequally placed in this regard. With the absence of camera feed in some matches, tough decisions in potential match-changing moments might have indelible effects on the fate of any team in their qualification bid.
It is not as if cricket has not seen such pitfalls in the recent past. In the semifinal of the last Ranji Trophy edition against Karnataka, a contentious not out decision in the fourth innings, on a nick off the bat of Cheteshwar Pujara, saw him tonk an unbeaten century that led Saurashtra to its first final appearance, which triggered a discussion on the inclusion of DRS in domestic cricket.
Closer to the heart of the matter, two years ago in England, the absence of the third umpire saw a howler in a Group Stage match of the 2017 ICC Women's World Cup between Australia and West Indies, where a run out appeal stood turned down even as the batter was well short of the crease.
The ICC is continuing its tight policy for World Cup qualification for the next edition as well. However, if the governing body does not relax its coffers to ensure uniformity in contracting out the broadcasting rights of its not-so oomph tournaments, it runs the risk of delegitimizing the quality it aims for the quadrennial showpiece of ODI cricket by compromising on fairness in playing conditions.
Also read - World cup hat-tricksPublished 26 May 2019, 23:33 IST