“At what time did you actually think you can win this match?” a journalist asked at the post-match press conference during the 2022 T20 World Cup.
“Before the first ball was bowled,” the player replied.
Though it has every element to qualify as one, the aforementioned sequence was not the brainchild of a commercially successful screenwriter. Instead, it was a 36-year-old all-rounder, Sikandar Raza, who deserves credit for coming up with the line. Not that he was presumptuous, and neither did he predict his answer will transform into viral social media reels.
It was borne out of confidence, stemming from the unbridled conviction every ‘small’ team harbours when they take on a ‘heavyweight.’
A credence so firm, it has caused innumerable surprises in sport, just like it did, for the umpteenth time, at the Perth Stadium on 27 October, when Zimbabwe stunned the semi-finalists of last year’s T20 World Cup, Pakistan.
The incredible victory over Pakistan came nearly three decades after their first-ever ODI match, which also was a triumphant story of epic proportions. Just three years after gaining independence, Zimbabwe left Allan Border's legendary Australian side dumbfounded.
From Suspension to Superlative
Over the last 29 years, the Chevrons, as they are affectionately called, have pulled off many such upsets against the 'big boys' of international cricket, but the ongoing campaign at the T20 World Cup is, perhaps, ‘extra-special.’
But, why so?
Especially because they are making a comeback in this competition after six years. Zimbabwe were supposed to feature in the qualifiers for last edition’s T20 World Cup, but a suspension handed by the International Cricket Council (ICC) prevented them from doing so.
The apex board of cricket, after much deliberation, came to the conclusion that all funding to Zimbabwe Cricket (ZC) were to be stopped amid soaring inflation in the country, as it was not possible to ensure ICC’s money will be used solely on cricket. Government’s interference in ZC was mentioned as the reason for their suspension, and subsequently, they were barred from taking part in the T20 World Cup qualifiers.
Albeit without explicitly pointing fingers at a team, or teams, one could raise the issue of government’s interference in a cricket board being still prevalent in places, but the treatment from ICC has not always been non-partisan. The likes of Nepal, Croatia and Zambia have met with the same fate as Zimbabwe.
The same Sikandar Raza, the player who is shining bright at the dusk of his career, thought that his career would end with Zimbabwe’s suspension.
Thankfully for the all-rounder, and more so for cricket, Raza’s career did not end there. However, beyond the suspensions and subsequent comebacks, questions on the treatment of the so-called ‘small’ teams could certainly be raised.
The Need of Broadening Borders
Back in 2017, football's governing body, FIFA announced the expansion of the FIFA World Cup from a 32-team affair to a 48-team competition from 2026.
At a time when many sporting federations were making an attempt to expand their horizons, cricket walked a different walk by reducing the number of teams in the sport's pinnacle competition - the ODI World Cup. The 14-teams-in-two-groups format was scrapped, and a new, 10-team format was introduced.
The new format allowed every ‘big’ team to compete with every other big team, meaning there would be more enthralling, 'evenly-matched' contests, but almost no room for any underdog uprising.
The 2007 ODI World Cup, which featured 16 teams, saw Ireland beat Pakistan. The 2011 edition saw them beating England, while in 2015, they got the better of West Indies. But in 2019, Ireland was not even a part of the competition, with the tournament closing its doors on the smaller teams. The ICC Champions Trophy was discontinued, but effectively, the ODI World Cup took its form as it only accommodated the aristocracies.
If we are to draw a footballing parallel again, we could talk about the proposed European Super League – a proposed league by the football elites which will only feature the big teams. The fans of the game, across the globe, launched protests against the league, and as of now, it stands scrapped.
Any such conglomeration of the elites might provide a better quality of matches, but it is bound to lack the unadulterated ardour of the non-elites.
The next edition of the ODI World Cup will also be a 10-team affair, before it finally reverts to its 14-team format in 2027. Till then, the smaller teams will have to count their days for five more years.
Onus of Expansion Also Lies With the Big ‘Gatekeepers'
Expansion of the ICC tournaments is of paramount’s importance for the growth of the smaller teams for another reason – their lack of matches against the big sides.
Before they take on England in the final, Pakistan fans might thank the Netherlands team for the umpteenth time, since had it not been for their astounding brilliance against South Africa, the green shirts would not have made it this far.
However, despite having shown what they are capable of producing, the Dutch players are not sure when they will be facing the 'big boys' next.
Speaking to The Quint, all-rounder Shariz Ahmad said “We need to keep playing against the big teams. We have shown we belong to this level, but playing against the bigger sides also helps us realize where we are lagging behind and what needs to be worked upon.”
Dutch bowler Paul van Meekeren also echoed same feelings, when he said after the match against India “There’s no reason why Test teams can’t come to Holland instead of playing the counties. Hopefully as a non-cricketing nation, these big players can walk the streets without being recognized so they have more freedom playing in Holland.”
With the introduction of the ODI Super League, teams like the Netherlands got a rare opportunity of hosting home series against England, Pakistan and West Indies. Following the Super League's discontinuation, the Dutch, alongside every non-elite team, lack clarity on their upcoming tours.
Besides being an opportunity to rub shoulders against the superstars, every bilateral series against a top team boosts the financial status of a smaller side significantly, further adding to the importance of such tours.
When Pakistan and England will clash at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for the grand finale this Sunday, 13 November, it will certainly be a contest to cherish, as the two best teams will go head-to-head.
However, we shall also remember that one of these teams had lost to Zimbabwe not very long ago, while the other was beaten by Ireland. Among the Jos Buttlers, the Babar Azams and the Virat Kohlis, it has taken a Sikandar Raza, a Colin Ackermann and a Josh Little to make this competition one-of-a-kind, perhaps the best ever of its kind.
While there is an ever-increasing demand for more nerve-wracking, nail-biting matches between the elites, the likes of Zimbabwe, the Netherlands and Ireland have made it very clear that there needs to be plans in place for every team, irrespective of their stature, if cricket truly aspires to be a global sport.
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