When the men's T20 World Cup Qualifier begins on Friday in Oman, it will no longer be a grueling marathon where conditioning and stamina often meant as much if not more than talent to separate the sides. A number of changes to the format, most notably splitting the 16 teams reaching the global stage into two separate eight-team tournaments, will be encountered by those taking the field in Al Amerat. Here's a rundown of how this qualifier is different from previous editions, which have been one of the highlights of the Associate (and now for some Full Members too) cricket calendar.
Shorter tournament length
At one time, the ICC was contemplating scrapping the global qualifier altogether partly for cost-cutting reasons. After getting some pushback from some leading Associates, the global qualifier has remained. But whereas in the past it ran for anywhere from two and a half to three weeks, the new edition of the event will run for one week. Despite having expanded this stage of the qualifier from 14 to 16 teams, splitting it into two sites with just eight teams at each site and rejigging the format to reduce the event length to seven days means saving at least USD 250,000 just on hotel room nights alone, not to mention a host of other daily operational expenses.
From a competitive standpoint, the shorter format has a two-fold effect. Some teams in the past struggled to field their best 14-man squad because certain teams ran into situations where their players could not take three weeks off of work for an entire year, let alone in one chunk for an ICC tournament. This was especially true for some of the busier Associates who may not have enough games to justify full-time contracts, but still too many during a calendar year to breach the threshold of exhausting annual leave from the day jobs of their amateur playing squad.
The other issue was that teams featuring players who are not full-time professionals (and even some of the teams who were full professional) often racked up plenty of injuries when their bodies were pushed to the max by a format that tried to squeeze as many games as possible into a relatively tight window. One edition of the qualifier, in 2012, saw teams play seven group matches in eight days. Eventual champions Ireland played 11 matches in 12 days, including a double-header on the day of the tournament final.
All of that is a thing of the past. Teams will play a maximum of five matches in seven days, with two off days scheduled. Whereas the tournament lasted anywhere from 51 to 72 matches in the past, each eight-team split qualifier will contain 20 total matches. It means the players won't have to wipe out their annual leave from work, and they also won't be leaving the event with their bodies wiped out from exhaustion.
Fewer games means less margin for error
Namibia was a team that benefitted from the lengthy group stage in the 2019 global qualifier. After getting thrashed by Netherlands and Papua New Guinea to open up a group stage that included six matches, they then went on a roll winning four straight and taking that into the knockouts where they defeated Oman to clinch a spot in the T20 World Cup.
Oman similarly benefitted from the knockout stage format that was in place in 2019 which offered a second chance to teams who finished second or third in their group by having a repechage elimination playoff against a fourth-place group finisher, which in 2019 was Hong Kong. That second-chance match became a winner take all contest to claim the last remaining berth for the T20 World Cup. Meanwhile, the winners of each seven-team group - Ireland and Papua New Guinea - clinched automatic berths in the T20 World Cup.
All of those incentives for finishing high in the round-robin stage are now completely gone. Each of the two eight-team global qualifiers - one will also take place in Zimbabwe in July - are now divided into two groups of four. Each team will play three group games, compared to six group matches from 2019, and the top two teams in each group advance to the semi-finals.
There is no longer an automatic berth in the T20 World Cup for finishing first in your group. Instead, the two group leaders will play the second-place team in the opposite group in a straight shootout, which means no repechage second-chance playoff match. The winner of each semi-final clinches a spot in the T20 World Cup. It means there could be a scenario where a team goes 3-0 in group play but loses their semi-final and misses out on the T20 World Cup. All teams will still play a final playoff match which will be for seeding and ranking purposes only as the two semi-final winners will face off in the tournament final and the two losing semi-finalists will play a consolation third-place playoff.
How they got here?
In the case of Ireland and Oman, they have arrived at the global qualifier by virtue of having been at the opening round of the 2021 men's T20 World Cup but fall back into the qualifier after failing to progress to the Super 12s.
Nepal, who missed out on the global qualifier in 2019 after failing to make it out of Asia Regional qualifying, have been granted a spot this time around based on the ICC's T20I rankings, as have UAE, who were part of the global qualifier in 2019.
Canada advanced as the runner-up in the Americas regional qualifier (behind USA) which took place last November in Antigua. Bahrain advanced as the winner of the Asia regional qualifier held last October in Qatar. Germany advanced as the runner-up at the Europe regional qualifier (behind Jersey) which was also held in October. Ironically all three of those regional qualifiers were held at the same time that the 2021 men's T20 World Cup was being played in the UAE.
Philippines' presence in Oman, hailing from the East Asia-Pacific region, came about in slightly unusual circumstances. The EAP regional events have traditionally been dominated throughout the last two decades by Papua New Guinea, but PNG's maiden appearance at the T20 World Cup last year meant that they would not have to return to take part in the first steps of regional qualifying for the 2022 T20 World Cup. That opened the door for a second team from the EAP region to advance to one of the two eight-team global qualifiers (PNG will be competing at the eight-team Zimbabwe qualifier in July).
An eight-team EAP Regional Qualifier was scheduled to take place last October but wound up being canceled due to Covid-19 logistical problems. As a result, Philippines advanced as the highest-ranked team from the region, a ranking which was primarily based on their performance from the 2019 EAP qualifier in which they finished second behind PNG thanks to a 10-run win over Vanuatu in a rain-reduced five-over shootout, as well as securing a point from a match against PNG which was washed out that crucially put them one point above Vanuatu instead of level on points. Philippines enter the tournament as the lowest-ranked side (46th) to have ever reached this stage of the T20 World Cup qualifying process.