By Tim Wigmore
Last November, Italy, the four-time champions, failed to qualify for the football World Cup. It triggered outpourings of introspection in Italy about where it had all gone wrong.
It is possible that, at the end of March, West Indies cricket will feel the same. Later this month, the West Indies arrive in Zimbabwe for the World Cup qualifying tournament: three cut-throat weeks in which defeats are imbued with dramatic consequences.
Should the West Indies lose two games out of seven, they will probably miss out on the 2019 World Cup. Given that cricket is far less of a global sport than football, this would be a bigger shock than the Azzurri missing out on Russia 2018.
And it really could happen. Think of the most renowned West Indies limited-overs players today – Dwayne and Darren Bravo, Kieron Pollard, Sunil Narine, Andre Russell and Chris Gayle. Only Gayle will be in Zimbabwe for the qualifiers. The rest will be playing Twenty20 cricket in the Pakistan Super League.
While the West Indies have been ridden by the factionalism they hoped to have left behind under Johnny Grave (WICB chief executive), their rivals are enjoying high quality preparation to qualify for the World Cup, honing their batting line-up and tactics and reacquainting themselves with the rhythms of 50-over cricket – a format that has its distinct rhythms to T20, and cannot be treated as a mere extension of it.
Ireland, for instance, have a sequence of eight one-day matches over January and February, before their two official World Cup qualifier warm-up matches that the ICC organise.
Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, two other fancied sides, are about to play a five-match ODI series. The West Indies won’t play any 50-over cricket at all this year until their two ICC warm-ups. And they have lost their past eight completed ODIs.
It all adds up to the impression of a side hopelessly under-prepared for a tournament whose importance the players might not truly grasp: as a Full Member of the ICC, the West Indies have never even needed to qualify for an ICC event before, as automatic qualification has traditionally been a privilege of their status. Talent alone – above all the opening pair of Gayle and Evin Lewis – might carry the West Indies to England next year. But in a tournament with the intensity and pressure of the World Cup qualifiers – the West Indies could expect to play seven games in 17 games, including four in seven days at the start of the competition – talent alone is not enough.
How the West Indies have learned as much over the past 20 years, too many of which have been wasted on internal squabbling rather than uniting against their opponents on the pitch.
There are some positive signs today – like the introduction of white-ball only contracts, which should have been introduced years ago, and more constructive relations with the younger generation of T20 stars, like Lewis – but these have come too late to allow the West Indies to field anything like their full strength team in the World Cup qualifiers.
As such, as they face teams who are more battle-hardened, and have been prioritising the qualifiers for months, there is a very realistic chance – probably just shy of 50 per cent – that the 2019 World Cup could indeed take place without the West Indies, who won the first two tournaments. They would only have themselves to blame.
This week, a coterie of leading T20 players – including Ben Laughlin, Darren Sammy, Kumar Sangakkara, Ryan ten Doeschate and Ravi Bopara – are descending on Hong Kong for the third season of the Hong Kong T20 Blitz.
This is a competition that will be beamed around the world – organisers hope to treble last year’s total of 11 million viewers – and is sponsored by KPMG. All this from a nation with under 1,000 adult cricketers.
It is a staggering achievement, and speaks of the transformation that T20 cricket has caused in the global ecosystem. Hong Kong will never play Test cricket, and have no intentions to. Yet they embody how T20 can galvanise the sport in countries where cricket was once derided as a game for eccentric expats.
The Blitz will not only provide brilliant entertainment for local cricket fans, but will also be a way of enticing new ones. And in the process it will also provide a brilliant avenue for emerging players in Hong Kong to play with some outstanding international players and improve their own games.
In the process, it also surely provides a template for other countries about how it is possible to stage a high-class T20 tournament in a short window. Ireland and Scotland, countries where cricket is far more vibrant than in Hong Kong, should look into creating a short Blitz-style T20 tournament of their own – perhaps even a joint venture, to raise the quality of the teams and minimise the financial risk.