England are World Champions, but have to qualify like everyone else

For all the chaos to engulf English cricket in recent days, with Covid-19 running rampant through the men’s squad, there is an abiding sense that, perhaps, England have got a little lucky. Compared to the Test series against India, or even the Twenty20 games they are playing this summer ahead of October’s T20 World Cup, a bilateral one-day international series midway between 50-over World Cups qualifies as the least disastrous time for a Covid-19 outbreak.

That logic is hard to dispute. Yet it overlooks the fact that the three ODIs against Pakistan do have a greater context. They are part of qualification for the 2023 World Cup – of which England are far from assured.

For every previous Cricket World Cup, England did not have to bother with worrying about whether they would get there. An automatic World Cup berth was a product of being a Full Member, reflecting cricket’s archaic obsession with status over meritocracy. But status alone is no longer enough for teams to get to the World Cup. Now, they have to actually win enough matches to qualify.

The World Cup Super League forms the basis for qualification for the World Cup. The 13 teams in the tournament play eight opponents each in a three-game series: a total of 24 matches apiece. The top eight countries in the competition qualify for the 2023 World Cup in India; the remaining five have to enter a cut-throat qualification tournament with leading Associate nations for the final two berths.

World champions or not, England have begun mediocrely in the Super League. Oddly enough, they sit top of the league table – but that’s really the product of having played more games than anyone else, with five teams having played just three games but England having played 12. Across these matches, England have won six and lost five, and split the points when rain led to the abandonment of last Sunday’s ODI against Sri Lanka. England’s record is even more underwhelming given they have played three of their four home series.

No one is sure how many victories a side will need to finish in the top eight. But the most likely total is 10 or 11 – which leaves England needing either four or five more wins from their remaining 12 matches. Let us suppose, as seems newly plausible, that England lose 3-0 in their series to Pakistan. That would leave England needing to win four or five or their last nine games.

World Cup Super League

After the series against Pakistan, England’s other encounters are all away – to Bangladesh, the Netherlands and finally South Africa. It is very conceivable that England could lose 2-1 in both Bangladesh and South Africa. That would then need England needing to win 3-0 in the Netherlands next year. This is far from certain given that the series is likely to clash with the IPL, forcing England to send a weakened side, and the Netherlands have a formidable pace attack, as they showed defeating Ireland while being far from full strength. Plus, there’s the Dutch weather: with no reserve days in the Super League, a washout or two could cost England points and further intensify the pressure they are under.

None of this is to deny that England should qualify from the Super League. But, unbeknown to most England fans, England will be at real risk of having to enter the qualifiers in 2023 should their makeshift side flounder against Pakistan. In a sport like football, with a culture of World Cup qualification through performance rather than birthright, this unpalatable prospect would already be properly acknowledged.

Other nations that would recently have considered that they would be entitled to an automatic World Cup place also have reason to worry. Sri Lanka, with one win from nine games, are virtually guaranteed to miss the top eight, while the West Indies and South Africa also have reason to fear too.

Such jeopardy is entirely as it should be. Qualification for tournaments should be based on current performance, not status secured aeons ago. And while the first 12 months of the Super League have slipped most fans by, the denouement to the competition will, as with the last months of the World Test Championship, show that international cricket is enhanced when there is proper context. England will just hope that the intrigue about which nations will miss the top eight, and thereby imperil their chances of ultimately reaching the 2023 World Cup, does not extend to the current ODI world champions.