Better Together – A two-pool 2022 Topklasse is a recipe for rancour

Bertus de Jong 08/09/21

With a successful 2021 season only just behind us, it may seem a bit early to start worrying about next season. But the KNCB and the clubs face a rather tricky predicament when it comes to the 2022 Topklasse, with an packed international Summer that will see ODI series against England, the West Indies and Pakistan clogging up the calendar, two new arrivals to the expanded top division in the promoted Kampong and Salland, and the prospect of a return to relegation with likely three teams dropping back down to the Hoofdklasse for 2024, devising an appropriate and equitable format for next year’s domestic fifty over competition poses a practically unprecedented challenge.

That challenge does not, as it stands, look likely to be met.

The current proposal that has been put to the clubs, TK Cricket understands, involves splitting the 12 Topklasse teams into two pools for the first phase of the season, with each pool to play a double round-robin before the field is split into a top six and a bottom six. The top three teams from each pool would then play home and away fixtures against the three top teams from the other side of the draw, with a similar format for the bottom six. Following the conclusion of this second phase the top two teams would contest a one-match final, while at the other end of the table the bottom two teams would be relgated automatically, while the tenth-placed team would play a relegation play-off against the Hoofklasse champions.

At first glance this seems a sensible enough system, condensing a twelve-team league into just 16 rounds (plus a single final and one relegation match). There are, however, significant problems with such a format both in terms of practicality and fairness.

The most obvious (if least serious) of these drawbacks is that clubs are faced with the rather regrettable prospect of playing some teams twice (or potentially three times) and some not at all. This lack of variety in fixtures is not the principal problem however. The most significant issue with this two-pool system is that the two groups will be almost by definition unbalanced. There is simply no sensible way of seeding the groups to ensure that they are equally competitive. Leaving aside the fact that the final ranking of teams this season is neither clear nor uncontroversial, there is not, nor has there been been for some time, any particular correlation between any given team’s strength from one season to the next.

Fig 1: Topklasse final league standings and year-on-year change per team

Over the past five seasons, clubs on average have finished more than three places above or below where they placed the previous season (fig. 1). This degree of deviation suggests there is barely more consistency in performance year-on-year than what one might expect from pure random chance. Moreover, this issue is likely to be exaccerbated by the return of a substantial number of overseas players as the effects of the covid pandemic wane.

Splitting the league into two groups also raises the thorny question of how to calculate points carried forward into the second phase. There is, simply put, no good solution to this question. The likelihood of unevely seeded groups means that the simplest option – carrying forward all points into the second phase – gives a considerable advantage to teams that find themselves in the weaker group, as well as substantially raising the chance of dead games at the back end of the season where a number of teams may end up safely in the top six but with no prospect of making the final. In the past this has led to such teams fielding enormously understrength sides, often in the name of giving youngsters a run-out, which gives their opponents at the back end of the season a considerable unfair advantage.

The current proposal’s preferred alternative, only carrying forward points from matches against teams who end up in the same half of the table, makes clubs’ fortunes hugely dependent on neutral results. Not only could the luck of landing in an easier group improve a club’s chances of making the top six, but who else does or doesn’t get through may appreciably affect their position once they get there. Worse still, such a system also gives rise to the possibility of perverse incentives, where in the final round of the first phase a team might be better off throwing a match in order to maximise the points they carry forward into the next phase (fig 2).* Though generally most clubs are unlikely to resort to this sort of Competitievervalsing even when it is clearly in their interests to do so, an equally possible eventuality is for a team to find itself in a situation where they need only limit their margin of victory in their final match to see their opponents progress on net run rate. It is hard to imagine any team deliberately chasing a target any faster than necessary if doing so would leave them in a worse position for the second phase of the competition.

Fig 2: hypothetical first phase results yielding a table-state where Team 2 is incentivised to throw their final game vs Team 3 (see note)

It is in fact difficult to see what conceivable advantage a two-pool double round robin system has over the simpler alternative; just playing a 12-team single round robin in the first phase before splitting the field into a top six and bottom six. A simple round-robin such as that played in 2020 would span 11 rounds, only one round longer than the first phase of the current proposal. A second phase where the top six and bottom six each play a single round robin of return fixtures would take five match days, giving a 16-round league before finals – the exact same number of match days as the current proposal. The notional equity advantage of playing home and away fixtures against each pool opponent in the current proposal seems laughably insignificant in the face of the obvious inequity of teams playing different opponents altogether in the first phase, especially given that under a simple 12-team round robin followed by return fixtures played among the top and bottom half of the table in the second phase would all but obviate this advantage. A single round robin first phase would also eliminate the potential for perverse incentives in the last round of league play and the prospect of teams finding themselves in a position where they could (and from a purely competitive standpoint should) seek to underperform or otherwise manipulate the result of a match in order to gain advantage later in the season.

Though the idea of a two-pool first phase is by a distance the worst (and most easily remedied) aspect of the current proposal, it is not the only drawback. At the bottom end of the table the automatic relegation of two teams is less than ideal, as it arguably means that surviving in the Topklasse next year is actually a tougher challenge from a competitive standppoint than gaining promotion from the Hoofdklasse. In effect one might argue that the two newly-promoted Topklasse clubs start next season from a worse position than their erstwhile Hoofdklasse rivals. If we are to return to a ten team Topklasse for 2023, however, it is difficult to envisage a more equitable solution given scheduling-constraints. Likewise it is regrettable but understandable given the limited space in the calendar that the finals play-off system that added so much tension to the back end of this past season will not feature next summer. If an extra day can be found there would surely be value in adding a 2nd vs 3rd Semi Final before the winner meets the 1st placed side Grand Final, granting the league phase winner a genuine advantage while keeping the table alive deeper into the season, though given that whatever format is agreed in the end will likely only be used for a single season such concerns are comparatively trivial.

Ultimately the finals format and relegation question are both less consequential and harder to fix than the format of the league proper. The current proposal to split the league in two is not only wrongheaded, it is entirely unnecessary. At best it will be inequitable from a competitive standpoint, at worst it may give rise to distorted incentives and needless controversy. It has little to reccomend it over an alternative that is both simpler and fairer, and which fits equally well into the constrained calendar.

*For example, say Team 2 is assured progression from its pool on 14 points after 9 rounds, and is scheduled to play it’s final first phase game against Team 3, currently in third on 12 points, who are one point ahead of Team 4 on 11. Imagine Team 2 has beaten Team 3 in their first match, but has already lost twice to Team 4. It is then clearly in Team 2’s interests to throw their match against Team 3, in order to ensure that Team 3 also progresses. They would thus ensure they carry one win from their four games against Teams 3 and 4 through to the next phase, whereas if they were to beat Team 3 they would risk Team 4 taking third place, leaving themselves one win down in phase 2.


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