The incomprable Huw Richards has a column in today’s IHT about the Afghanistan cricket team. He mixes in a review of the documentary, Out of the Ashes, which I’m still impatiently waiting to arrive in the United States (or bootleg copies, whichever comes first).
Richards also mentions the controversy around recent proposals for the Associates, second-tier cricketing countries who will most likely be expelled from the 2015 World Cup. Here’s the problem (as I see it): the ICC and its member countries want to shorten the World Cup, because a) no one watches the Netherlands play, and b) fewer people are watching ODIs now, let alone four years from now.
The second point is debatable, but the first isn’t. The problem with the solution — let’s cut out the Associates — is that it also denies these teams a significant goal and a recruiting tool. The chance to play against the greats is the best opportunity to learn from the greats. Recall also that when the Zimbabwe team met Harbhajan Singh, the spinner decided to donate cricket kits after seeing what they played with. Trickle-down economics at its finest.
So what to do? For my part, I think the merits of playing in the World Cup are slightly exaggerated. In the last 15 years, we watched Kenya perform extremely well in the marquee tournament, only to fall to the bottom of the pack of late. At the same time, we’ve seen teams like Ireland, which consistently perform well at the highest level, still struggle to gain the legitimacy they seemingly deserve. More than a few weeks — or however long this damned tournament lasts — will be needed.
If you want, go ahead and restrict the number of Associates in the Cup. But then commit yourself to actually building these teams to the point where they can regularly compete at the international level. That means bilateral series, or one-off exhibition games, or sending “A” teams, or embedding key players at acclaimed academies and in county circuits. If I were a cricketer in, say, Afghanistan, and I was told I had no chance to make any money or compete at the highest level (the two being related, of course), then I’d become an engineer (ha! No, just kidding, I’d become a doctor!).
Just a final note: of all the Associates, I think Ireland and Afghanistan have the most potential. I say this not to disparage the likes of Canada or Kenya or the Netherlands. No, this is simple geography: the Irish are a good team in part due to the proximity to England, and Afghanistan’s squad was born in Pakistan. These teams make sense and we’d be stupid to let them slip back into obscurity.
Now if only someone could come up with a plan to save New Zealand…