There was a poignant picture on Friday that captured the plight of cricket’s Associate nations. As the rain pounded down furiously, washing away whatever bleak prospects the Netherlands had nurtured in qualifying for the main draw, the television cameras panned in on skipper Peter Borren. Sitting on his haunches in front of the dressing room, pleadingly looking at the skies, Borren gave the impression of a man who was about to lose all his life’s earnings at a single stroke of misfortune.
It was around 5.30 pm. The rain had lost some of its unrelenting fury. The groundsmen had started taking the covers off. The umpires, their trousers flapping in the wind, walked out for an inspection. The cameras focused again on Borren, who remained, as he mostly is, brooding. He didn’t seem anxious, for he must have been resigned to the fact that any play was virtually impossible. He was just waiting for an official confirmation.
The umpires did the needful, and in another two minutes, the skippers of Oman and the Netherlands were driven in a car to the press conference room. But Borren was far too preoccupied to be amused by this unusual experience. Having lost the first match by just eight runs to Bangladesh and their comeback bid against Oman washed away in the rain, he had graver things to reflect on.
“Guys have put a lot of work into this campaign. It started a year ago, with the first part of the qualifier in Ireland and Scotland. We shared that trophy and played some really good cricket. We sit here now after playing three hours of cricket against Bangladesh, where we came up short. Obviously we can’t do anything about the weather. There are obviously questions about how much we’ve had to do to get to this stage as it is. We’ve won a lot of games and an eight-run loss to Bangladesh and we’re gone,” he lamented.
Borren was referring to the qualifying tournament, where they had emerged joint winners with Scotland, after an eight-match rigour, just to reach the qualifiers – which like Borren, most skippers of the Associate countries, feels is “harsh”. They don’t grouse about the qualifying tournament, but having to go through another round of qualifiers to enter the main draw is what they feel as inequitable. And there is always a bottom-dwelling Test team, but a Test side nonetheless — in Group A, it was Bangladesh — making their case tougher.
Consequently, they have taken a cynical view of things, that the ICC has structured the World Cup in such a way that they don’t want the Associates to beat a top-rung team and thus miss out on revenue. “This has been the bugbear for a while. That is why the ICC has the tournament in two phases, because they will lose a lot of revenue if one of the ‘top nations’ go out to any of us in the early rounds. It doesn’t happen in any other world competition. Every sport grows. Football has increased the number of teams for the 2023 World Cup. Rugby has done the same. They are looking to progress their games. It is a shame that the ICC at the top level insist on cutting teams. It has fallen on deaf ears a lot of time,” reckoned Ireland skipper William Porterfield, after his side too crashed out of the World Cup after just one defeat.
“After the last World Cup, there were quite a few people at the top of the table who were quite happy that we missed out on run-rate. It makes it a bit easier for them because they can ignore all the comments and let it die over time,” he claimed.
Quantity or quality
All the same, increasing the number of teams in the main draw — while it can give the odd thrill and romance of an underdog upstaging an established side — is fraught with the risk of making the tournament long and laborious, replete with one-sided fixtures with little or no interest for the spectators or the wider audience-base on telly. And, of course, financially draining, something the ICC chief executive Dave Richardson had stressed last year:
“There are lots of commercial implications to consider. We also need to have a look at the attendances at all the Associate games, what were the viewing figures, and see where they really stand. To me the debate should be more about what are we doing for Associate member cricket to enable them to qualify for a World Cup, whether it’s an eight-team, 10-team, 12-team, 14 or 16-team.”
As for uplifting the Associates, the ICC can cite the introduction of Afghanistan and Ireland to a 12-team ODI structure from last year as palpable progress. Sides like Ireland are getting more ODIs – Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe are all touring there later this year — a proposed increase in ODI funding, the Test Challenge in 2018 that will allow the winner of the Intercontinental Cup to gain Test status if they defeat the lowest-ranked full member (though the new Test team would receive around one-eighth of the ICC funding of Zimbabwe and no guaranteed fixtures).
Borren agrees that the ICC is not entirely blind to their needs, but adds: “The opportunities for games, however, have become far less. Four or five years ago, I used to play quite a few games. These days, not many with World Cup League going to a three-year cycle,” he pointed out.
He can’t be blamed for his grudge, for their opportunities at the big stage have dwindled over the last five years. In this span, the number of guaranteed spots for the Associates in the World Cup has gone from four to none; the number of games the Associates were guaranteed against top-eight ranked sides every four years in the World T20 has gone from eight to none; and the World T20 having moved from a two-year cycle to a four-year one, means they are deprived of the participation fee to the tune of $300,000.
Hence, Borren feels there is a “malaise” towards them. “Maybe above them there is a sort of malaise towards Associate cricket. To grow further in the game, we always hear it is not commercially viable. We can’t afford to do our own bilateral series. It is very difficult for us. We then hear WCL has gone to a three-year cycle because it is not affordable otherwise. To be honest there is a lot of money in cricket. We don’t need that much (money). We are not looking for millions and millions of dollars. Just a very small percentage of this huge amount,” he pointed out.
“It’s a cruel place to be.”
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