Monday, April 4, 2011

ICC turns back on affiliate nations' World Cup hopes

By excluding Ireland, the Netherlands and other affiliate nations from the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, the ICC could well have signed the death warrant for International 50-over cricket. A format which could well have been revitalized by one of - if not THE - best World Cups ever, now stands on the precipice of becoming an elitist tournament with no second division. Any league around the world needs a feeder system. By robbing themselves of that at ODI level, cricket's head honchos have announced that Twenty20 is the way of the future.

The ICC has decided that a ten-team format is the best for the ODI World Cup. That much is clear and, probably, fair. To compensate for their brutality, the Twenty20 World Cup will be expanded in a clear message to the world's 95 associate nations: T20 is the future. Notwithstanding the perilous effects this is likely to have on player techniques, this also cements the notion that no affiliate nation has any hope of ascending to Test level within twenty-five years.

Without a strong One-Day program, Test cricket is weaker. The fifty-over form is the best way of choosing a World Champion and, to the delight of the non-baseball crowd, demands batting and bowling technique, thought and tactics rather than an abrupt slog-a-thon. A nation can wean players on ODIs in preparation for Test matches; the same cannot be said of Twenty20. If countries like Ireland and Afghanistan aren't able to expose their men to the best in the world, there remains no hope for growth in the Test world. The step up from ODI to Test is often too great, let alone from T20.

Should, as is rumoured, the mooted ODI League - complete with promotion and relegation - come into effect after the 2019 tournament in England, the affiliates will be again able to attempt qualification for the World Cup, play regular matches and attempt to improve both grass-roots and elite talent pathways to full International level, a process likely to take at least 10 years. But with an eight-year gap between Cups, there exists the chance that the fifty-over game will have fallen into irreparable decline or even been eradicated completely.

Without question, Ireland are the team closest to making the step to the next level - and may have surpassed both Bangladesh and Zimbabwe already. They are the archetypal Big Fish in a Small Pond, identified by the ICC not as "too good for affiliate" but "too small for the Big Time". Sadly, Ireland are in a category all of their own and stand as the nation shafted by Haroon Lorgat's arbitrary nature. As they produce quality cricketers, (faint) hope grew for an Irish Test team. It is all now gone.

The debate isn't whether Cup is suited best to a ten- or fourteen-team format, the big picture is that the ICC has made a sweeping reform to the game's Showpiece to benefit smaller "Full" members at the expense of growth. Globally, cricket is far from being in a safe position and thus growth is required to ensure that cricket doesn't become confined to its heartland - now, proudly the subcontinent. When growth is required, it behoves administrators to focus most on strengthening their weaker elements. Here, the opposite has happened and more revenue has been funnelled into wealthy coffers.

To exclude Ireland, a team whose performances everyone has admired, simply because they haven't yet broken into the big time is wrong. If their displays at the last two Cups and ICC trophy dominance aren't reason enough to include them in the planning for 2015, then surely their administration is: there's good reason to think that the Cricket Ireland is more transparent and better administered than counterpart organisations in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangaldesh, Zimbabwe and the West Indies.

The exciting new ODI League may have been initialised to save the fifty-over format. That comes as cold comfort for players like Kevin O'Brien and William Porterfield, who though young now, probably won't get a chance to strut the big stage again. The ODI revolution may come years too late for the smaller nations in world cricket.


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