Give Associates a chance
The preliminary round of the cricket World Cup is now history, and regardless of what happens from here on in, it was enjoyable. It was enjoyable partly because of the presence and performance of the Associate members and some of their players.
The heroics of players like AB de Villiers and Chris Gayle, Tim Southee and Trent Boult were exciting. So, too, however, were those of others like Shaiman Anwar and Samiullah Shenwari, Shapoor Zadran and Hamid Hassan, unknown players going into the cup.
Unfortunately, however, next time around they, and others like them, may be missing. It does not seem that they will be around in 2019, at least not as things now stand.
According to the format agreed on, the number of participating teams will be cut from 14 to 10, the top eight teams in the ICC ranking system will be automatic, and the other two will have to qualify.
That means, going off the present ranking list, that the top eight teams would be Australia, South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, England, Pakistan, New Zealand, and the West Indies and they would gain automatic entry with Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, the bottom two in the rankings are left to qualify.
It means, therefore, that the two teams most unlikely to qualify are Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, even though Bangladesh knocked out England this year, and more importantly, that teams from the Associates are unlikely to qualify, even though Ireland beat the West Indies and Zimbabwe and later scared the living daylights out of the West Indies and Pakistan in the fight for a quarter-final spot.
In the final analysis, it means that teams like Ireland, Afghanistan, Scotland, and the UAE, the teams which, fighting above their weight, gave almost as much as they got, punched almost as hard as the heavyweights did, may miss out, especially Ireland who beat two of the Full members.
And Ireland's victory over the West Indies was not a fluke, not when it is remembered that they did the same thing to Pakistan in 2007 and to England in 2011, and not when it is remembered the number of times the weaker Full member teams embarrassed their more heralded brethrens.
It is when other things are remembered, things such as when Associate member Zimbabwe beat Australia in 1983, Kenya defeated the West Indies in 1996, Canada beat Bangladesh, Kenya defeated Bangladesh, and when Kenya beat Sri Lanka in 2003.
It is a retrograde step to even consider leaving the Associates out of the World Cup.
The World Cup of 2015 would not have been the same but for the performances of the four Associate teams in matches among themselves, in some matches against the Full members, and also without the performances of some of their players.
The ICC, headed by India, England, and Australia, claim that the Associates are too weak for a tournament of this nature, that the tournament needs the best against the best, that they are doing their best to help the "Minnows", but that they can only accommodate a couple of them at best, and only after they qualify.
In other words, after many changes over the years, the ICC has decided that the World Cup will remain the preserve of the top eight teams of the long-standing members. It matters not whether the Full members are playing well or not, it seems that they will be protected.
Development, however, is providing opportunities to grow, and by limiting the participation of the Associates in the World Cup, the ICC is stifling the development of the game.
Instead of expanding, cricket is contracting.
There is definitely a difference between the standard of play of the Full members and that of the Associates, and there is no doubt about that.
The Associates, in fact, are not ready for Test cricket, not even Ireland. Their bowling is weak, so weak that if they were bold enough to play a Test match against say Australia, South Africa, or India, or even Sri Lanka, Pakistan, England, New Zealand, or the West Indies, they could end up in the field for many, many days and still they would lose.
Nobody, except maybe their own fans, would pay to see them being beaten time and time again, and mercilessly so.
Test cricket, however, is different from limited-over cricket, and on top of that, the Associate members need the competition, and the exposure, in order to improve.
The fact that the Associates are not up to the level of the Full members in Test cricket at this time is not good enough to rob them of the opportunity of rubbing shoulders with the game's elite.
In limited-over games, especially when hosted by the Associate members, matches would more or less be competitive, and would pay for themselves.
It must be remembered that the shorter the game, the more restricted it is, the closer the teams become, and most times, or sometimes, in 50-over cricket, or Twenty20 cricket, any number can play.
In limited-over cricket, there will always be the excitement of David meeting Goliath and cutting him down.
The Associates must play in the World Cup, and of equal importance, they must play cricket more frequently and against the top teams if they hope to improve.
Cricket needs more teams, and good teams. Cricket needs teams like Ireland, Afghanistan, Scotland, and UAE, Kenya, the Netherlands, and Nepal, and many more to come on board, or given the opportunity to do so.
The surprising thing about all this is that the ICC played an important part in the Associate members giving almost as much as they got this time around.
It was the involvement of the ICC, through its Targeted Assistance Performance Programme (TAPP), that led to the improvement and performances of the Associates in time for this World Cup.
TAPP assisted in the setting up the inter-provincial structure in Ireland, it bankrolled an academy in Afghanistan, it paid for Ireland's tour to the West Indies early in 2013, it paid for Afghanistan's tour to Zimbabwe, and just as how it helped the lower-ranked Full members to prepare for the World Cup, it paid for New Zealand's tour of the United Arab Emirates during which they played against Ireland, Afghanistan, and the UAE.
The question is, why the sudden change towards the Associates? Is it to protect the sacred Full members, and in extension the Big Three, or is it, in this age of commercialisation, only and simply to make as much money as possible and to hell with cricket?