Ever since the turn of the Millenium I started boring people to tears with repetitive calls for ‘context’ and meaning to bilateral series. I wasn’t alone in suggesting that a World Test Championship would be a good way to maintain interest in the five-day game outside of the Ashes and matches involving India for which no added incentive was necessary.
In 2013 the inaugural WTC was launched – I even hosted the event because I happened to be in Dubai and I was cheap. You can still find the footage of me interviewing captains Graeme Smith and Misbah-ul-Haq before the Test series began. And then politicking caused it to collapse before it had even begun.
It was finally relaunched six years later in its current, clumsily imperfect format which is, remarkably given just how clumsy and imperfect it really is, still better than nothing. Having visited New Zealand earlier this month I can testify just how profoundly their victory in the first final has affected Test cricket in the country. For the first time ever replica Test shirts are outselling the coloured ones. Not a scientific measurement, granted, but a measurement nonetheless.
South Africa’s fixture list for the 2023-25 third edition of the WTC sees them play exclusively two-match series. They start with India’s visit at the end of the year before travelling to New Zealand, Bangladesh and the Caribbean next year before hosting Sri Lanka and Pakistan at the end of 2024. If they reach the final they will have to wait six months without a Test match before playing in it.
Then came the World Cup Super League for ODIs. This time the format was innovative, bold and immensely satisfying. It allowed, Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands the chance to compete for direct entry into the World Cup but also brought hitherto undreamed of tours by major nations to their shores.
Now that it is reaching its crescendo, the tension is glorious. Seven of the eight automatic qualifiers have been decided and, with the likes of Bangladesh and Afghanistan safely onboard, two out of three Test-playing nations – South Africa, Sri Lanka and the West Indies – are going to have to reach the final of a 10-nation pre-qualifying tournament in Harare in June and July to make it to the World Cup. It will not be easy.
The common misperception is that the Proteas just need to win their final two matches against the Netherlands to pip Sri Lanka and the West Indies for eighth place. In fact, if the Sri Lankans sweep the Black Caps 3-0 in their series in New Zealand, which is about to start, they will claim the last automatic qualifying spot leaving South Africa and the West Indies to tackle Zimbabwe, the Netherlands, Nepal and Namibia amongst others.
Another misperception is that Sri Lanka have no chance of beating New Zealand 3-0. Not in New Zealand in their conditions. Ordinarily, that may be true but these are not normal times. The Sri Lankans acquitted themselves well in the two Tests which preceded the series and they are a team on the up. New Zealand, meanwhile, are a long way from full-strength and lack the intensity and desire of their visitors having long-ago secured their own place at the World Cup in India in October.
They will be without Kane Williamson, Devon Conway, Trent Boult, Michael Bracewell, Tim Southee, Kyle Jamieson and Mitchell Santner, all of whom are injured, rested or at the IPL. It is a sign of the Black Caps’ unprecedented depth that they will still be fielding players of the quality of Tom Latham, Finn Allen, Daryl Mitchell, Tom Blundell and Lockie Ferguson. But they also have Ben Lister, Henry Shipley, Mark Chapman and Chad Bowes in the squad.
There is another unlikely twist in the plot. If South Africa lose a game against the Dutch and Sri Lanka lose 2-1 or 3-0 against New Zealand, the West Indies can still qualify automatically leaving South Africa and Sri Lanka in the pre-qualifiers.
Cricket South Africa have raised the ire of IPL team owners by refusing to allow their biggest names to attend the first week of the tournament. The Franchises were told unequivocally before the last player auction that the South Africans would be available for the entirety. It still seems likely that some will sneak off early. Aiden Markram, after all, is captain of the Sunrisers Hyderabad, Lucknow Super Giants will want Quinton de Kock for their first game as will Punjab Kings with Kagiso Rabada.
The inaugural WC Super League will, sadly, die after its first edition because the 2027 version, in South Africa, will include 14 teams anyway. But lessons should be learned from its many successes. I can’t recall the last time I was so excited before a bilateral ODI series.
The Netherlands. I mean, really, with all due respect…but given the enormity of what is at stake, the fact that the men in orange knocked SA out of the T20 World Cup last year and that the final game is the ‘Pink Day’ to conclude the international summer at a sold-out Wanderers. The mind boggles and so do the cricketing taste buds. It should be a one-sided sporting train-crash. Probably will be. But who can be sure?
+ The final ODI against the West Indies was played in Potchefstroom. The TV production team stayed 50-km away in Klerksdorp, not on cricket’s beaten-track. Most subscribers will never have seen Klerksdorp, and never will. So I decided to share some images. They may have confused your reading. Apologies. I’m in an end-of-term mood.
A couple of points about who might or might not be playing in the WC qualifiers:
It's by no means assured that ANY of SA, WI and Sri Lanka will avoid having to play in that tournament...although SA are fairly likely not to have to. But even if SA win both games against the Netherlands, Ireland (not sure why they haven't even been mentioned) could pip them to the post if they whitewash Bangladesh in May and keep their net run rate above SA's. (at the moment, it's almost identical, Ireland's being fractionally better). If they drop a game, SA will be OK with one win and one tie/abandonment this weekend--but of course they won't know that!
Namibia, meanwhile, are no longer certainties to be in the qualifiers at all (it hasn't been possible for a few weeks now that both Nepal and Namibia could get direct entry to them). Nepal are in, along with Oman and Scotland, but Namibia have to finish in the top two of the pre-qualifying competition currently in progress--and they were hammered in their first match, albeit by one of the best other teams. But if they lose to the UAE it's going to be looking pretty dicey for them.
Good stuff Manners. I hear Sri Lanka are 1 down v NZ...