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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

South Africa v United Arab Emirates, World Cup, Cake Tin, 12 March 2015

Scorecard

Public opinion is on the march. Social media is outraged, in a mild, cricket sort-of-way, that the lesser nations are to be excluded from the 2019 World Cup, which will be contested by ten teams. "Let them stay!" is the cry. This match was a rebuttal of that view.

John Arlott used to tell a story about Phil Mead, the prolific Hampshire batsman of the inter-war period. “Mead”, an old spectator said, “was a boring batsman. Saw him at Southampton once, blocked all day for 200”. The obvious point being that Mead was so much better than the bowling that he could score a lot of runs quickly without taking risks or appearing at all spectacular.

So it was today. South Africa—mysteriously put into bat—made 341 without hurrying or straying far from the orthodox. Only in the last over, when Behardien went after Amjad Javed, did any urgency appear in their approach.

AB de Villiers’ innings was a case in point. He made 99 from 81 balls, a pedestrian pace by his standards. After the match, he was flattering about the bowling. But we did not see a single sweep, reverse sweep, paddle or any of the bespoke shots with which de Villiers so magnificently challenges top bowlers. He didn’t need them. He knew that South Africa would reach an unbeatable target without any such exertion.

When they batted, UAE made not the slightest pretence of chasing the target. The required rate started at a little under seven an over. By the 13th over it was eight, by the 19th nine, by the 24th ten and then exponentially on. Runs were taken when available, but for UAE the honour lay merely in survival.

The fact that of the South African bowlers only Morne Morkel—in competition with Abbott for a place in the knock-out phase, according to some reports—was operating at full throttle assisted them, but the margin of victory was still a massive 146 runs. We all knew what would happen and it did. Where’s the fun in that?

Of the associates, only Ireland beat one of the eight major sides, and that was the West Indies, a team that makes the Greek economy look a model of stability. They also beat Zimbabwe, a country no more worthy of test status than it is of being called a democracy.

The twitterati have hailed the Irish for having shown up the ICC. I’m all for red faces among the ridiculous and self-important in Dubai, but on this issue there is scant evidence for it. The eleventh ranked team beat the eighth and tenth ranked teams, which is hardly a sensation.

If, as I hope, the ICC proves uncharacteristically resolute and the next World Cup is a ten-team tournament, there should, of course, be a qualification process. What would be a greater incentive for Ireland to continue to improve? To be handed a near-certain place or to know that if they work very hard, they will qualify to play against all the major teams at a World Cup? They are more than capable of doing so. Meanwhile, the ECB has a responsibility to assist Ireland in a more meaningful way than a one-off ODI in early May for which they will not even bother to recall the captain from the IPL.

I may be cynical, but I fancy that the patriotic devotion of the players to the Irish cause might wane quickly if they were granted the test status to which they aspire and found their county contracts plummeting in value because of their absence touring Zimbabwe or somewhere every July and August.

If there were any justice, England should also have to qualify after their hopeless display this time, but their status as hosts will probably protect them. Perhaps a Champions Trophy could be used to sort out a top six, the bottom team in both groups joining the qualifying process.

If we peer through the sentimental mist generated by the associates issue, we could see a wonderful ten-team World Cup in 2019. The format would replicate the 1992 tournament, the best of all according to many of those who have seen most of them. All teams would play nine games against all the rest, leading to semi-finals. There would be 48 games, one fewer than this year, but without a quarter or more being foregone conclusions like the non-event I watched today, and without a third of the teams having no realistic hope of progression.

I can’t wait. First, to the Cake Tin for New Zealand v West Indies.

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