The ICC Says No to Associate Teams in the 2015 Cricket World Cup

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New World Cricket Watch columnist John Beavan analyses the polarisation towards the ICC’s decision to narrow the number of World Cup teams to ten in 2015.

While several quarter final spots are still up for grabs as we enter the final week of group games, a few sides have to make sure they savour their remaining fixtures. For the likes of Kenya, Canada and The Netherlands, 2011 could be the last World Cup they ever play.

The ICC’s decision to narrow the World Cup field to just ten teams in 2015 has polarised opinion on all fronts. Speaking on the eve of this years World Cup, chief executive Haroon Lorgat outlined the reasoning behind the decision – that 50 over cricket is “more skill based and suitable for the top teams”, citing T20 as the best vehicle for worldwide development, hence the decision to expand the next T20 World Cup to 16 teams.

Australia captain Ricky Ponting claims that “there’s not much to learn from getting hammered.”  There is also not much in it for TV executives when New Zealand needed just 31.5 out of 100 overs to glean a ten wicket win from Kenya in the second game of the tournament. Despite the occasional upset, these mismatches are often over before they’ve even begun.

But how can cricket go from strength to strength if the minnows don’t have a legitimate opportunity to develop at the pinnacle of the game? That is the question being posed by many key figures across the associate nations. The fact is that outside of the World Cup, teams like Kenya, Canada and Zimbabwe are neither seen nor heard, disappearing into the wilderness for four years at a time, like a friend who goes on a hiatus to the Amazon rainforest to ‘find himself’, only to return years later having learned nothing.

Those old sayings – ‘you have to start somewhere,’ ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ (etc) – could not be truer in this instance. Take Sri Lanka for example – the whipping boys of world cricket for 14 years between their inclusion as the eighth full member and their improbable World Cup victory in 1996. These days, they come into every major competition with a genuine chance of victory.

Bangladesh, after becoming the ninth full member in 2000, had a fairly demoralising decade in the international arena. Since 2009, however, the Tigers have turned a corner and have quality players in the likes of Tamim Iqbal and Shakib Al Hasan in their ranks. They still have a long way to go, but they aren’t the pushovers they once were, as England know all too well.

For the current crop of minnows, the picture is a little less rosy. Ireland’s famous victory over England aside, games versus the big boys have been predictably one-sided. The political and economical turmoil in Zimbabwe and Kenya has made the implementation of a sustainable grassroots system difficult. Both nations have raw talent ready to be nurtured, and Cricket Zimbabwe has shown commitment to the cause by setting out an 18 month strategy with a view to making a return to the Test fold.

Kenya demonstrated their potential in 2003 after making an impressive run to the semi-final stage. Since then they have disappeared from the radar, and attempts to develop a full First Class system collapsed in 2007.

Canada have exceeded expectation by merely making the World Cup at all. Competing with established sports such as Ice Hockey, Baseball and Basketball for the attention of the population is intensely difficult, and all players earn their livings outside of cricket. Many of the current squad are also ex-patriots, so once again the key is investment in grassroots cricket to build and sustain home-grown talent.

The plight of Canada poses the perfect argument for the inclusion of Associates – for the vast majority of Canadians, the only time they’ll see cricket is when the World Cup is on – to deny them that opportunity would be to the detriment of those youngsters who may aspire to pick up a bat and follow their heroes.

While the plight of most minnows is a story of adversity, there is great optimism for others. Ireland, who have built on their successes at the World Cup, now have 13 professional players who play in the English county system and are making an increasingly convincing case for full ICC member status.

None of the associates will make the quarter finals this time round, but at the very least they have all had 6 more games of experience at the top flight, an invaluable tool to have going forward. In order for improvement to be made, both the national governing bodies and the ICC have to commit to providing a consistent amount of games against the best sides.

The signs are good: following their Test and one day series against England, Sri Lanka have agreed to travel north to face both Scotland and Ireland in a triangular series before heading home. Just a few games can give existing squads the necessary experience, as well as inspiring others to get involved as players and administrators.

To consign associate nations to the slap-bang nature of T20 feels like patronage, as if the nuances of ODI and Test cricket would be wasted on them. Although the sparks of genius have been few and far between in recent World Cups, it is Trent Johnston’s chicken dance, Nehemiah Odhiambo’s smiling swagger, and big Dwayne Leverock’s incredible slip catch against India in 2007 that will always capture the essence of why the World Cup is so special.

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