Cricketing Barbarians

Rugby Union has a representative team called the Barbarians. They are something of an oddity in the professional era – an invitational team who play against international sides in exhibition matches. These are high scoring, free flowing matches that encourage an attacking and entertaining spectacle. It’s a great antidote to the win-at-all-costs culture that has come with professionalism.

Cricket has a significant gap between the top ODI teams and the rest. Matches between these sides will rarely be balanced – since 2015 there have been 69 games between the top eight sides and Non-World-Cup (NWC) teams. The NWCs have won just five and tied one. There were likely some pretty dull days among the 63 defeats. The perception is that it’s hard to sell these games, so boards would rather have long series between the top teams than host a “minnow”.

How about we use the first paragraph as a solution to the second? Picture an invitational side, the best of the NWC teams*, playing an exhibition 50 over match at Lord’s against an England XI to start the international summer. No stats or averages up for grabs. No wider context, apart from the love of Cricket and a desire to grow the game by giving the best-of-the-rest a chance to show what they can do.

It has been tried before, a three day warm up game in 2012. England scraped a three wicket win in a balanced contest. A shortened red ball practice match might not be the right format – it’s unlikely to pull in the crowds in the way an exhibition 50 over game could.

Marketing these games would not be taxing – take a leaf out of the Barbarians book and have big name guest coaches (such as Kumar Sangakkara). The Baa-Baas have a nice touch where each player wears their own club socks to complement the black and white hoops of the Barbarians kit. This MCC NWC XI could do something similar with Helmets**.

Numbers time

Since this is, we’d better have some stats to support the idea that a composite Barbarian team would be more successful than individual countries.

This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive review of who the best NWC players are – more an indicative view of how players have fared against the best ODI sides. Bertus de Jong is a useful source on Associate Cricket, if you’d like to know more.

Here’s some candidates to be on display for this theoretical XI, based on performances against the World Cup teams since 2015. It would be easy to find a competitive top six from these players, ideally not just drawing players from the 11-13th best teams (Ireland, Scotland and Zimbabwe). Note that no individual team can field seven players who have averaged over 27 against the big names.

Fig 1: ODI Batting 2015-2019, NWC vs World Cup Teams. Ranked by average. Excludes players that retired before 1/1/18.

As for bowling, not many great averages, but these Economy rates would keep the NWC XI in the game. As for individual countries, Zimbabwe have plenty of bowling which could challenge the top ODI teams. Ireland and Scotland don’t have that depth.

Fig 2: ODI Bowling 2015-2019, NWC vs World Cup Teams. Ranked by average. Excludes players that retired before 1/1/18.

This Barbarian concept could work. The hosts would get a spectacle and something a little different for the fans, while giving the Associates & Affiliates a chance for their best players to gain experience of competing against a top team.

*If this comes across as condescending to the sides ranked 11-20, it isn’t intended to. The world is getting smaller, and if Cricket doesn’t widen its popularity, richer sports will. Think of this proposal as a means to an end, building towards bilateral series.

** It may not surprise you to learn that I don’t work in Marketing.

Further Reading

The Cricketer magazine flagged the best players missing from the 2019 World Cup in an article here.

Here are some highlights of an England vs Barbarians fixture in 2018.