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Not done, ICC

India-England women’s T20 World Cup semi-final is the latest example of the governing body’s lack of foresight

THERE ARE ways in which moments of travesty can be turned into misplaced validation. A recent example was how Indian cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle reacted to South African women’s cricket team captain, Dané Van Niekerk, saying she would rather play and lose than get a free pass – a semifinal washed out by rain – into a World Cup final.

There are many problems with how Bhogle reacted to Niekerk’s statement, some contextual and some amounting to skirting the larger issues. To begin with, Bhogle was wrong in grasping the context. Far from how he interpreted it, Niekerk wasn’t taking a potshot at India’s lucky route to the final of the ongoing T20 World Cup. India’s semifinal against England at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Thursday was abandoned without a ball being bowled but they made it through on account of being the group topper. The South African skipper was replying to a journalist, who had asked if, given the weather forecast, her team wanted to play or preferred a direct entry into the final. She wasn’t taking a swipe at any team.

Second, as Bhogle argued, it’s understandable that India’s qualification could be seen as a reward for its consistent performance in the group stage of the tournament. It’s also obvious that such a scenario, which almost resembles a rain-enabled walkover, couldn’t be a choice awaiting a sports team. However, given the appeal of big stage matches, like a semifinal, and how a team handles pressure in such a knockout clash, rewarding group stage consistency to pick the winner if a match is washed out doesn’t carry any semblance of fairness.

There is a significant degree of truth in the cliché that a team is only as good as its last match. The charm of key face-offs like a semifinal is entrenched in how teams seize crucial moments under the weight of expectations and it isn’t comparable to their consistent record at the qualifying stage of a tournament. The history of big tournaments has many examples of teams being knocked out in crucial matches after remaining unbeaten in the group stage. An obvious case in point is how the South African men’s cricket team earned the dubious tag of being “chokers” because of their failures to rise to the occasion of knockout matches after doing very well in the group stages of various tournaments. So, the question wasn’t whether India would have qualified or not, but why its entry into the final on the basis of the team’s group stage record didn’t take into account the pressure dynamics and situational vagaries of a knockout encounter.

What the reaction to Niekerk’s reply also fails to recognise is the larger issue that should worry the cricketing community in the wake of Thursday’s washout. The elephant in the room is that the International Cricket Council has been plagued with a lack of foresight in framing rules for all eventualities for even its premier tournaments. What else explains not having a reserve day for semifinal matches of a Women’s T20 Cricket World Cup? How could the world cricket body not anticipate the shutting down of options if the weather denied any play on the scheduled day? Couldn’t an extra day be accommodated within the itinerary of participating teams as a contingency plan for a possible washout of the scheduled day of the match?

It isn’t a blip in how the ICC has been approaching rules for such situations, and in the process exposing the lack of due diligence in framing rules or working out schedules. The ICC’s goof-ups on these counts have now become too regular – a pattern which shows amateurish handling of a highly professional and competitive sport aspiring to spread its global wings.

July 14, 2019 was one such day. The epic encounter between New Zealand and England in the final of the men’s One Day Cricket World Cup produced pulsating cricket of glorious uncertainties, only to be marred by ICC’s bizarre deadlock-breaking rule of deciding the winner of the super over tie by the number of boundaries hit. That was a clear travesty. It amounted to reducing the high level of skill, temperament and sporting performance to the decisive caprice of a freakish and ill-thought rule. In fact, it showed that the ICC hadn’t put much thought into envisaging a more sporting decider in such an eventuality.

It finally made up a solution, exactly three months after the fiasco. On October 14, the ICC communicated, “Boundary count has been scrapped as a way to decide results of semifinals and finals in ICC events. Henceforth, if a Super Over is tied, it will be repeated until one team has more runs than the other.” The change in the ill-thought rule came too late, the damage had been done. Viewers around the globe, a large part of whom should be the ICC’s target to showcase the great sport and spread it, expressed a sense of indignation at the patent unfairness in deciding the winner of an epic final.

The delayed response of the ICC, however, only came after the Kiwi team had paid a heavy price for it. Jimmy Neesham, the New Zealand all-rounder known for his humorous social media posts, compared the ICC’s rule change to thinking of “better binoculars for the ice spotters on the Titanic”.

If one may recall, even the super over as the decider in case of a tie came only after the ICC briefly experimented with hit-the-stump to break deadlock in the inaugural 2007 men’s T20 World Cup match. There is a high probability, especially in view of the backlash that it has triggered, that the ICC will revisit its scheduling and keep a reserve day for semifinal matches of future ICC tournaments. However, that would again be at the cost of, as Neesham rightly said, depriving a team of its fair chance at attempting to win the coveted trophy.

In the longer version of international cricket, Test matches, it’s significant that the ICC treads with caution while floating ideas like shortening the longer format by a day. There is talk of introducing four-day test matches in place of five-day matches from 2023. While the move would be opposed by connoisseurs of classical cricket as well as players, the ICC’s lines of reasoning seems to be rooted in releasing the pressure points in a hectic calendar clogged by numerous factors – tours, proliferation of T20 leagues, prior commitments of participating boards like India’s and its claim to the revenue, and costs of staging the current five-day test matches.

Even if it’s just a matter for consideration now, the ICC needs to guard itself against any shortsighted move. Moreover, it needs to put more thought into envisaging whether such a move would undermine the essence of the longest version of competitive cricket. It can’t afford haste, especially in the wake of its recent goof-ups in framing rules for premier limited overs tournaments.

Ad-hocism and trial-and-error methods have resulted in arbitrary rule-framing – something that reveals the ICC’s inept handling of key international tournaments in recent times. For a highly competitive and professional sport seeking a global footprint, cricket deserves better from its international governing body. It can start with ruling out any possible scenario which doesn’t give a fair chance to competing teams to try and win.

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