By Venu Palaparthi
A debate has raged recently over USA's wild card entry into Twenty20 World Cup Qualifier to be held in Dubai in October 2009. USA was chosen as the eighth nation to round off the top six associates with ODI status and the host country UAE, which is currently ranked 17th.
USA has been accused of grabbing Namibia's spot (that country is ranked 18th).
According to the critics, USA's selection has violated the sanctity of ICC's merit based 'structure.'
I agree that Namibia completely deserves its high ranking among associates. Namibia would be justified if it feels that it has been short-changed by ICC. They worked hard to secure that ranking.
At the same time, I disagree with the view that USA 'undeservedly' got a ticket to the Qualifier.
USA's critics are of the view that we should remain in exile for some more years. I think these folks are missing the big picture.
Firstly, by definition, a wild card is a special admission into a tournament whose current ranking wouldn't merit entry. In most sports, it's because the invitee is a rising star or a local favorite. ICC gave USA an entry based on USA's potential - not its current ranking.
Secondly, the ICC ranking system is not a 100% accurate reflection of cricketing merit. As you will see, USA's ranking of #32 has much to do with off-field issues stemming from its years in exile and less to do with its on-field performance.
Divisions and regression
First a quick walk through recent history.
By all measures, 2004 was the year in which USA cricket hit its previous peak. USA had a 2nd place finish in 2004 ICC Americas. Then it followed that up with a first place finish in ICC Six Nations Challenge UAE 2004 - a tournament that featured Scotland, Namibia, Canada, etc.
With that came the opportunity to play in the 2004 ICC Champions Trophy. Although USA got mauled by the two blue-chip countries in its group - Australia and New Zealand, it also secured a rare victory over Zimbabwe - a full member country - in a warm-up match in September 2004.
But in 2005, USA Cricket became bogged down by a fractious dispute between two rival factions. In fact, the problem came to a head just before the ICC Trophy in 2005 when the two factions disagreed on the squad that would play in that tournament. In May 2005, the USACA named a squad that was condemned by opponents as being 'unrepresentative.' On June 3, just a few weeks before the tournament start, ICC confirmed that USA will participate in the ICC Trophy 2005. It was in these morale-depleting circumstances that a team from USA played in the last ICC Trophy 2005.
Why is this important?
Well, the entire World Cricket League ladder that is in place today is based on the results of the 2005 ICC Trophy. Therefore, the results of the ICC Trophy 2005 played a significant role in shaping the cricketing destiny of associate countries.
USA, which was ranked 6th in ICC Trophy 2001, slipped to 10th among the associates in the 2005 ICC Trophy. In this tournament, USA lost three matches to opponents, one match to rain and its sole win was against Papua New Guinea.
Since this competition was used to seed the global World Cricket League, USA was placed in Division 3 and Namibia in Division 2 based on their rankings of 10th and 7th respectively after the completion of the 2005 ICC Trophy.
But that's not all! There was a further twist in USA's case.
ICC's suspension of USA in 2006 and 2007 made a bad situation worse for cricketers here. USA was pushed to the bottom-most WCL Division 5 when it emerged from suspension in 2008. That meant that USA's climb was going to be steeper by another 10 ranks.
USA's loss was Argentina's gain as that country took USA's place in WCL Division 3 held at Darwin. To their credit, the Argentinians used this opportunity and moved to Division 2, albeit temporarily. In different circumstances, USA would probably have joined Namibia in Division 2.
Namibia, thanks to a top 3 finish in Division 2 against the likes of Argentina, Denmark and Uganda, progressed to the 2009 World Cup Qualifier.
The cards that were dealt were played well by some countries. USA needed to scratch its way back from WCL Division 5. Not impossible (as Afghans proved), but one bad day on the field was all it would take to end their campaign.
WCL Division 5 - An off-day at a crucial juncture.
USA went to WCL Division 5 with tremendous hope (and sub-optimal preparation) just weeks after the ICC suspension was lifted. It won all 4 of its matches in the group stage, but things went awry in the semi-finals against Jersey. As a consequence, USA was out of contention for the World Cup (of the ODI variety). Jersey moved to Division 4 and Afghanistan transited through Division 4 to even greater heights.
The cards that were dealt were played well by Afghanistan and, in retrospect, somewhat poorly by USA. Unfortunately, USA had a bad day at a very crucial juncture.
Where are they now?
Barring USA, the graduating class of the 2005 ICC Trophy have done well - Namibia moved to the 2009 World Cup Qualifier and so have UAE, Canada, Bermuda and Uganda. This is perhaps a reflection of the fact that these countries were blessed with a stable and nourishing environment for cricket between 2005 and 2008. In contrast, USA was in suspension for two years, had no funds for three, and played little international cricket in 2006 and 2007.
USA is happy for all these countries (and for Afghanistan, which did so astonishingly well despite the lack of such nourishment) - all these countries deserved their ascent.
In summary, USA has atoned for its administrators' presumed mistakes - it was demoted in the World Cricket League system and is on the sidelines for the 2011 World Cup.
Denying USA a wild-card entry to a T20 competition, on the basis of a ranking structure formulated in 2005 is like using the same stick to beat USA twice.
Are the rankings sacred?
First things first, the ICC could not have thought of the WCL 'structure' in the context of a T20 World Cup. Because Twenty20 was unheard of in ICC corridors in 2005. The qualifiers for the first two T20 world cups were completely different - in fact, it is fair to say that the qualification methodology is evolving.
Even if rankings were considered, the global ICC rankings miss another important point. There is so little WCL action in a year that relying on a ranking system based purely on 'qualifying' events is like marking a calendar in England based entirely on sunny days!
Just before the 2008 ICC Americas tournament, I wrote on this website: "Although USA, Canada and Bermuda are regarded as comparable in the region, they are miles apart in World Cricket League standings. By that ranking, USA is inferior to all but one team in the region and only slightly better than Suriname."
As I had predicted then, USA reclaimed its status as the No. 1 cricketing nation in the Americas by winning all its matches and finishing ahead of Bermuda and Canada in the 2008 ICC Americas Tournament. Off the field, progress is being made in administrative matters too.
None of this recent progress impacts USA's rankings because, according to the ranking system, the highest win percentage in qualifying (i.e. WCL) matches versus other associates is what determines these rankings.
ICC Americas victories in 2008 against better ranked Canada (#16), Bermuda (#19), Cayman Islands (#25) and Argentina (#26) do not count since these were not in the WCL setting. And USA's victories in 2004, when USA defeated Scotland (now #15), Canada (now #16) and Namibia (now #18) in the ICC Six Nations Challenge do not count because the WCL was not in place in 2004. It is USA's misfortune that it has played few matches since 2005 owing to its suspension from ICC.
Given that, I don't know if the ranking structure can be considered sacred.
Why shouldn't the top-ranked team in Americas play?
If meritocracy and rankings are interlinked - then there is another point that must be made.
The countries that are playing in the Qualifier are - Ireland, Canada, Kenya, the Netherlands, Afghanistan, Scotland, UAE and USA - the wild card entry.
Europe's #1 is playing. Africa's #1 is playing. Asia's #1 is playing. Why is USA, which is ICC Americas #1 'undeserving'? Canada after all is the regional runner-up.
Where's the money?
Some have suggested that ICC's decision is motivated by dollar signs. That is a rush to conclusion like no other. USA is the second largest TV market for global broadcast rights by ICC's own admission! And it remained the second largest TV market throughout its suspension. USA's cricket consumers have buttered the cricketing world's bread for many years now.
Granting USA a wild card to a T20 Qualifier may not do too much in the near-term since the bread is densely buttered already.
But if USA cricket attains buoyancy based on its performance in this tournament, then the entire cricketing world will gain from increased American interest in the sport. And if increasing interest in the game is ICC's long-term goal, then we must commend ICC for finally making that a priority in USA.