Last time, Scotland were unquestionably the most unfortunate of the 93 Associates and two full members to miss out on qualification.
It's been a little under a month since England sealed their dramatic, if somewhat controversial victory in the 2019 World Cup final in front of a home crowd at the home of cricket, but their neighbours to the north were already looking to the next edition, to be held in India in 2023.
Scotland were unquestionably the most unfortunate of the 93 Associates and two full members to miss out on qualification for the lamentably exclusionary ten-team World Cup. Their campaign started with a rain-abbreviated win over Nepal on a drizzly day in Ayr some four years ago, their opening match in the old World Cricket League Championship, and ended in heartbreak at the Harare Sports Club in March last year, a dodgy LBW decision and, perhaps fittingly, the rain seeing them sink to hope-crushing defeat against the West Indies at the World Cup Qualifier.
The elements had been Scotland's most dogged adversary throughout their qualifying campaign, washouts in both their WCLC fixtures against the Netherlands, and another in Hong Kong, costing them a shot at a first-place finish. The Dutch would go on to claim the title at Dubai in December of 2017, and with it a place in the new Cricket World Cup Super League alongside the ICC's 12 Full Members and a chance of direct qualification for the 2023 World Cup.
Scotland, meanwhile, find themselves more-or-less back where they started, give or take 150 miles. Their road to the 2023 World Cup begins in Aberdeen this week, when they take on Papua New Guinea and Oman in the first of the 21 trilateral series that make up CWC League 2, which replaces the WCL Championship as the top tier of Associate 50-over competition, and the second-highest rung on the World Cup qualification ladder.
The opening match of the six-match series, which will see Oman face PNG on Wednesday, is also the inaugural fixture in the new World Cup qualifying structure announced by the ICC in October last year, which will provide the bulk of 50-over competition for the top 20 Associates going forward, following the conclusion of the much-lauded but under-exposed World Cricket League, which drew to a close after over a decade with the final Division 2 tournament in Windhoek in April.
Broadly speaking the new structure has been welcomed as an improvement. For the first time it includes the 12 Full Member nations, who together with the Netherlands will contest the top-tier Super League, scheduled to begin early next year. With the top eight teams from the 13-team Super League gaining direct qualification for the World Cup, and the bottom five joining the top five finishers from lower leagues at the CWC Qualifier, the new system sees all of the ICC's Full Members participating in structured qualification for the first time. Still more remarkable, it has been confirmed that the bottom-placed side from the Super League may be relegated to League 2 for the next cycle should they finish below the League 2 champions at the CWC Qualifier, essentially meaning that all of the ICC's members are competing, at least in principle, on the same qualifying ladder.
The chance of claiming a spot in the next edition of the Super League is arguably a greater prize for the seven teams in League 2 even than a potential World Cup berth, as for Associate countries the value of the new CWC League system, like the WCL before it, is as much in the fixtures it guarantees as in the chance of making it to the World Cup itself, especially given how small that chance is so long as the game's premier tournament remains a ten-team affair. With this in mind, the ICC's development department consulted extensively with participating countries in the design of the new structures, with a view to getting as much cricket as possible out of ever tighter budget, whilst lending greater stability and predictability to Associate schedules below the top tier.
The seven CWC League 2 participants, consisting of Scotland, the United Arab Emirates and Nepal (who won their places in the League at the last World Cup Qualifier) together with Namibia, Oman, PNG and the United States (who qualified through the final WCL Division 2) will play 36 ODIs each across the 2.5-year cycle, almost three times as many as they would have had in the old WCL Championship. The league is made up of a total of 21 trilateral series, with each country thus playing three series at home across the cycle and six away. Compared to the seven tours and seven home series demanded by the WCLC, the concentration of matches in trilateral series both serves to lower travel costs as well as somewhat simplifying matters for the handful of amateur players still to be found in top tier Associates cricket with respect repeatedly taking time off work.
Such considerations are still more relevant for sides outside of the top 20, and was one of the chief complaints about the divisional system of the World Cricket League below the Championship tier. The chief building block of the WCL's double-ladder system was the divisional tourney (of which there were originally eight, later reduced to five) which would see six sides play out a round-robin tournament over the space of about ten days, with the top two sides gaining promotion to a higher division, the bottom two relegated, and the middle two remaining in the same division for the next edition. This high-stakes, do-or-die structure reliably made for some extraordinarily dramatic cricket, but also left Associates perpetually unsure of their future schedules, not knowing which or how many tournaments they would be contesting in any given cycle.
The new structure replaces WCL Divisions 2 through 5 with the CWC Challenge League, with teams ranked 21 to 32 divided into two parallel six-team pools, each of which will contest three round-robin tournaments over the course of the cycle. The first such tournament, Challenge League Group A, is scheduled to take place in Kuala Lumpur next month, and will feature Canada, Singapore, Denmark, Malaysia, Vanuatu and Qatar. Group B, consisting Hong Kong, Kenya, Uganda, Jersey, Bermuda and Italy, will contest the first of their three rounds in Hong Kong come November. In effect, each Challenge League group will play out a triple round-robin spread over three different venues over the course of the qualifying cycle, with the winner of each pool joining the bottom four teams from League 2 at the CWC Qualifier Playoff - from which the top two teams will progress to the WC Qualifier. The route to the World Cup is thus no easier for mid-ranked Associates, but the comparative stability of their schedules will at least make preparation and planning more straightforward, as well as potentially being more attractive to long-term sponsors.
There is always a price, of course, and the most obvious trade-off in the abolition of the WCL's double-ladder system, where each division was run twice every cycle, is that participants in the new structure are fixed for a four-year stretch. For 72 of the ICC's 104 members, qualification for the 2023 WC is already impossible, as it would seem is the prospect of any structured international 50-over cricket for the next four years. Whereas previously there were two chances each cycle for those Associates below the WCL to get a foot on the bottom rung of the ladder by winning through regional qualifying to the lowest WCL division, under the new system there will be only one such opportunity every four years, with four qualifiers competing against the bottom two teams from each Challenge League pool for a spot in the next cycle. Under current proposals, those four teams will be determined through the T20I rankings table rather than through regional 50-over competitions, which would appear to have been scrapped entirely.
At the other end of the Associate ladder, the substantial increase in fifty-over cricket has also come at a considerable cost, namely the abolition of the Intercontinental Cup. The long-running Associate First Class competition, which ran in parallel with the old WCLC, was once dubbed the "pathway to Test Cricket" by the ICC, and provided the only international red ball cricket below test level. Despite a statement last year that "a structured multi-day competition on a cost-sharing basis will be proposed giving Members the choice of playing longer form cricket", as yet there is no sign of an imminent replacement. Again, Scotland are arguably the most unfortunate in this regard, having done the legwork in putting together a fledgling domestic 3-day competition, and making no secret of their aspirations to be the next Full Member only to be denied the chance to make their case as a potential Test-playing nation on the field.
For the time being they will have to direct their focus to white-ball cricket and the task at hand, namely two matches each against Oman and PNG, both of whom have recorded recent wins against them. With the League 2 champions earning the right to challenge for a place in the next Super League, potentially securing four years of fixtures against Full Member opposition, the competition in League 2 is sure to be fierce. Looking ahead, September will a high-flying Namibian side enter the fray, when the United States host their first home ODIs against them and PNG in Florida. The UAE host the next round in December, taking on Scotland and the States in their first series, but without a doubt the competitions most eagerly anticipated fixtures will come in February of next year, when ODI cricket finally comes to Nepal. Nepal's opening series against the United States and Oman is all-but guaranteed to sell out the Tribhuvan University Ground at Kirtipur, Kathmandu, and doubtless Nepal's legions of fans will be playing close attention to even neutral series, if they are afforded the chance. The question remains, however, whether anyone else will.
So long as the World Cup persists with the current exclusionary format, the new Associate leagues must by necessity be an end in themselves, given that they serve as a means to World Cup qualification only in the most notional sense. As such, the new structure's success will be measured not by the fortunes of individual teams, nor even by the quality of cricket or closeness of competition, but by the attention it garners from wider audiences. In this regard the World Cricket League, for all its qualities, remained an abject failure throughout. Despite providing some of the most hard-fought, cut-throat and high-stakes international cricket to be found anywhere over its decade-long run, the untold drama of the WCL remained exactly that; untold.
It was not until the final WCL tournament in Windhoek that a single divisional tournament was broadcast or streamed, and even then not in full and not by the ICC. The persistent failure to promote the competition was such that even now most casual cricket fans are entirely unaware that it ever existed. It is to be hoped that the ICC, for all the budgetary constraints imposed by pocket-filling Full Members, will not repeat the mistake.
Early signs are not good. Despite the nascent European Cricket League just last month showing what could be achieved with limited funds and an aggressive marketing strategy, it seems as though the ICC are content to leave promotion and coverage largely in the hands of the boards themselves. This week's matches are full ODIs, a fixed single-camera stream will be the limit of the coverage. Future series may not even have that. At time of writing, in keeping with the ICC's baffling lack of interest in promoting its own events, CWC League 2 lacks even a tournament page on the ICC's own website.
The journey to India 2023, it seems, will start in the dark.