September 28, 2012

Cricket's top eight need to be challenged more

And for all the resources and chances they have got, Bangladesh haven't done it yet

It took eight days for the World Twenty20 to get to the eight teams we knew would play the next stage. We yearned for the established teams to squirm a bit, maybe even get embarrassed. Why, we wouldn't even have minded if one got knocked out because it would have meant the game had got more competitive. But apart from a tiny little period of play from the spirited Afghans against India, we yearned in vain. There is still no challenge to the established forces, and that isn't great news for a global sport. A hundred countries may play cricket but it is still really only eight.

Of the four countries that made early exits, two (Afghanistan and Ireland) need more cricket and two (Zimbabwe and Bangladesh) need to be challenged.

I think Ireland have a point when they say they don't get enough cricket against better teams. It is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately because otherwise they will continue to lose players to England. Eoin Morgan has been lost, now Boyd Rankin has quit, and at some point George Dockrell is going to think about whether he can fulfil his dreams with the limited opportunities he gets.

We saw too that in the limited cricket world they have seen, Afghanistan have made impressive strides. They deserve to be tested more at another level. They looked far from ready against England, and they will continue to be that way against teams with pace and bounce, but they have shown spirit, and a couple of players have caught the eye.

But the problem in world cricket outside the top eight is not as much with Ireland or Afghanistan or Netherlands or anyone else seeking to break in but with those already in but not looking the part. Zimbabwe and Bangladesh were terribly disappointing and I suspect for their own development they need to be asked some hard questions. At least Zimbabwe can point to political and allied issues but Bangladesh can't. They have the funds, the facilities and the opportunities but not the results.

Like Indians and Pakistanis, Bangladeshis are great cricket lovers. They love watching cricket, they support it well, and they deserve more from the team that is out playing for them. It is now 12 years since they played their first Test and their win-loss record is 3-63. Losing 63 out of 73 Tests played, many at home, is a woeful record. They do a bit better in one-day internationals with 72 wins to 188 losses but if you take the top eight cricket nations only, their record plunges to 20 out of 152. In their Test batting averages only four players (who have played ten or more Tests) make it past 30. Two of those don't reach 31 and no one is close to 40. Only one of their bowlers averages in the vicinity of 30. It gets worse. Of the three slots left (batting average over 30, bowling average around 30) Shakib Al Hasan fills two.

At a similar stage in their development, Sri Lanka had a win-loss figure of 4-27 out of 55 Tests, which wasn't great but was better. But, critically, they had already produced Roy Dias, Duleep Mendis, Aravinda de Silva, Arjuna Ranatunga, Roshan Mahanama, Sanath Jayasuriya, Asanka Gurusinha, Hashan Tillakaratne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas. The base had been laid and they were ready to move on. Bangladesh have Shakib and occasionally Tamim Iqbal, and really, that's it.

I got the feeling here that everyone other than Shakib was batting two places higher than ideal. In good teams batsmen seem to be batting one position lower than where they are capable of playing. With Bangladesh it was the other way around. Mushfiqur Rahim and Mahmudullah at Nos. 4 and 5 suggested there aren't batsmen to fill those positions.

They spark sometimes, do Bangladesh, like they did at home during the Asia Cup, when they beat India and Sri Lanka and almost beat Pakistan in the final. But their next world-class player isn't yet in sight and I think it might benefit their cricket if they are challenged a bit more; if it is suggested to them that they need to prove they are closer to the top eight than to the next four, or that else they might have to play more in the little league. A small threat might jolt them into looking at the system that produces cricketers and in being fairer to their many fans who so dutifully and admirably sustain the game there.

World cricket needs the top eight to be challenged more if ICC events have to be more competitive. In two and a half years we will again have 14 teams at the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, and you cannot have a competition that is waiting to begin halfway into its fixtures.

I had thought that T20 would make world events like this one more competitive. It didn't happen in Sri Lanka.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here