Topklasse 2022: The case for a two-pool solution

Rod Lyall 11/09/21

Trying back in March-April to get an elite competition up and running, and faced with the reluctance of the Topklasse clubs to run the risk of relegation and the wish of the Hoofdklasse clubs, should pandemic conditions permit the lower divisions to play at all, to play for promotion, the KNCB Board decided to expand the Topklasse to 12 teams for 2022.

This understandable solution, however, would run for only one season, and it brought with it considerable problems: 2022 is likely to be one of the busiest in the history of Dutch cricket, with home Super League series against Pakistan, England and the West Indies, and this will put great pressure on the fixture list in a year in which at least two, and possibly three, sides would be facing relegation as the Topklasse reverted to ten teams.

[This pre-empts, of course, the ongoing discussion about the optimal competition structure, where there are powerful arguments for going still further, and ultimately reducing the top division back to eight sides.]

A full twelve-team double round robin, which last applied in the Netherlands in 1997, would require 22 playing dates, plus any finals which might be agreed – and that’s without considering any demand that rained-off matches should be replayed.

Even if the competition started on the unprecedentedly early last weekend of April and observed no traditional ‘free weekend’ in late July, it would still take until the first Sunday in September to complete the round-robin phase, although it could be compressed if clubs were prepared to agree to some double weekends.

And on the evidence of this season, that seems pretty unlikely.

If we accept that in view of the international schedule there are no more than 16-18 available playing dates, the Board therefore faced two broad alternatives: a single, home-or-away round robin followed by a further top-six/bottom-six home-or-away phase, or a double round robin in two groups followed by a Super Six and Bottom Six (both 16 matches).

Neither is without its difficulties, but the Board, on the advice of a working party which included club and player representatives as well as Competition Manager Bart Kroesen and High Performance Manager Roland Lefebvre, has reportedly opted for the latter, apparently on the grounds that it would be inequitable for some clubs to have to play only seven home games as against nine away.

My own view, in contrast with that of Bertus de Jong, is that is this on balance the better option, although I accept that it’s an issue on which legitimate disagreement is possible, perhaps even inevitable.

One objection to the group arrangement, forcefully made by Bertus, is that given the season-on-season fluctuation in teams’ relative strength the groups are very likely to be unequal , especially if there is an influx of overseas players next year.

[Again, whether the KNCB should or can take steps to limit that influx is a separate issue, but one which should not be ignored.]

This is a problem easily dealt with, though, by basing the rankings on, say, a three-year average of placings rather than simply on 2021, a season influenced not only by the relative sparseness of overseas players but also by the stramash between HCC and VOC. Such a three-year average would produce the following rankings:

Team 2021 2019-21
Punjab 1 1
HCC 4 2
Voorburg 2 3
VRA 3 4
HBS 5 5
Excelsior 7 6
ACC 8 7
Sparta 9 8
VOC 6 9
Dosti 10 10

Some shifts, then, but with the main exception of VOC, a difference of no more than a place or two in the rankings. Using the traditional seeding system, this would produce the following groups:
Group A: Punjab, VRA, HBS, Sparta, VOC, Kampong.
Group B: HCC, Voorburg, Excelsior, ACC, Dosti, Salland.

As for the problem of the transition from the first phase to the second, even a career of nearly forty years in university politics and more than a quarter-century in Dutch cricket have not equipped my mind for the sort of Byzantine intricacies Bertus de Jong envisages in his scenarios for ‘perverse’ results and competitievervalsing.

Both carrying all the first phase points through and only those from matches against the other sides which progress have both been tried elsewhere, and I am not aware of any documented cases of such willful manipulation of results in order to procure an unfair outcome.

The odds on such a situation arising are, I think, extremely long, and while I don’t in any way underestimate Dutch clubs’ capacity for finagling, I’m inclined to believe that watchful umpires and match referees are capable of dealing effectively with any such problems should they arise.

And let’s not forget that this is an arrangement which will apply for just one season in fairly extreme circumstances; it’s not a system which anyone is proposing should operate in perpetuity.

That leaves the question of relegation, where the Board has decided that the 11th- and 12th-placed sides will be relegated automatically, while the side finishing tenth will face a play-off against next year’s Hoofdklasse champions to decide who plays in the 2023 Topklasse.

This is essentially a repeat of what happened in 1997, and again in 2009 when the top division was reduced from ten teams to eight.

Once again, this seems to be the least-worst solution: no promotion at all is obviously not an option, and to have three sides going down directly would be unacceptably savage.

The scheme may not be ideal, and no doubt every aspect of it could be tweaked one way or another, but in view of all the constraints it seems to me to be a reasonable compromise as a one-off resolution of the problems as we emerge from the pandemic crisis.

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