Everyone who has ever believed in the continued quest to save the one-day game would be elated at the two and half weeks of cricket that they have seen in this World Cup. Fittingly, after close to a decade of Kangaroo dominance, which angered some, bored others and made some marvel at the staggering consistency of the Australians (they are yet to lose a World Cup game since early 1999 as we speak!), this World Cup is the most open one we have had in a very long time; experts, former players and current cricketers echo and jive in with similar sentiments too. Obviously, Group B with England heralding close finishes looks far more difficult to call than Group A where one can be certain that Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka will go through. But cutting across the group divide, what one can see clearly is what the associate teams, called uncharitably it seems in hindsight as minnows, have brought to the table.
Naturally, the opinions of those that matter have been divided on the subject of associates. Ricky Ponting is of the opinion that getting hammered is not going to help the non-test playing nations in developing their cricket. At the other end of the spectrum we have had someone like Graeme Swann indicating how it is a great platform for the second string teams to come and show what they are capable of. Opinion from former players does not seem to be unanimous either with some believing that associates ought to be around in World Cups and with greats such as Ian Chappell (agreeing for once, surprise, surprise!) being of the opinion that bringing in the associates allows for too much mediocrity in exchange for one surprise game.
It is in this context that the balanced views of cricinfo editor Sambit Bal drives home a crucial point when he says that a method should be worked out that empowers the associates to give their best shot so that the World in the World Cup can be retained. Bal adds that in terms of format, the 2007 World Cup played in the Caribean with four pools of six teams competing for eight spots in the next round, which is where the serious action begins, the best. Unfortunately - not for the game per se but for its commercial overlords and those dependent on them - the tournament turned out to be a financial fiasco because of India's and Pakistan's exits in the first round, triggered by Bangladesh and Ireland respectively. The argument that such shocks themselves justified the presence of associates, however, turned out to be too premature as neither Ireland nor Bangladesh impressed in the Super Eights. Yet thereby hangs a tale.
The performance of the associates in this World Cup, which in its format is a return to the more traditionalist pattern comprising a round of eight, a round of four and a final, has been consistent and strong, barring, perhaps, Kenya, which is ironic because Kenya was one of the most impressive teams in the associate circuit some years ago and even made it to the semi-finals of the 2003 World Cup. Kenya's return to painful anonymity cannot be blamed entirely on the lack of competitive cricket for them but that would definitely have had a role to play. Which is why the ICC cannot afford to carry the same sort of ignorance with the other associates especially if the game's governing body thinks of the spread of the game as more than glib adjectives spewed out in plush conference rooms at meetings in Dubai, London and Bombay. Which is why I feel the associates despite being competitors have fortuitously but fortunately come together in sending a strong message towards the ICC think-tank.
Even if we discount Kevin O' Brien's once-in-a-lifetime assault on the English bowlers at Bangalore which gave the Irish a victory that would rank alongside the one they had against Pakistan in 2007 at the heels of Bob Woolmer's death, the Irish have given a great account of themselves, have played with pride even if not panache and bowled and fielded reasonably well. Scoreboards are not always the best indicators of non-batting achievements in the sub-continent anyway. The Dutchmen led by 'Ton' Doeschate had a good game against England as well and scoring 290-odd against a bowling attack that has two of the five best seam bowlers in the world is no mean achievement, good pitch or not. And had it not been for Shahid Afridi's incredibly resurrected bowling in this world cup, which even flummoxed the Sri Lankans, Canada might have, and still should have, pulled the rug from under the Pakistanis' feet. However, they, like Ireland in the game against India, bowled with a lot of heart, a point that should not be missed in the final analysis.
Far too many times, victories and defeats are used as all-or-nothing yardsticks based on which verdicts can be passed. This is especially the case in (team) sport where the gap between the winner and loser is exaggerated by emotional drainage and the bloated media glare. It is surprising sometimes that even the most seasoned experts can fall into the trap of blind result-orientation (although admittedly Ian Chappell's article predates the stellar performances put in by the associates). However, triumphs and tribulations alone cannot be fair or sufficient indicators of an upcoming team's performance. To say that Ireland are better than England because they chased 338 down is absurd; and yet if Ireland had lost, even if closely, the game would have been remembered for a brief while by its participants and the crowd before being consigned to manila envelopes where it would have gone down alongside other one-sided games vindicating the Establishment position to keep the associates out. The gap between wins and losses may be narrow on the field but a world too big to be bridged by commonsense in the human mind, which is why I think the Irish did a great thing by crossing the gap, thereby sending a strong message to the ICC for themselves and the other associate teams in this World Cup.
My take on the matter is simple: if the game puts commercial interests first and foremost, then one can merely have India at the centre and invite other teams just for fun. If that sounds condescending, then not giving the associate countries the one window where they can show their talents is downright insulting for these countries, cricketing fans there and kids who love and wish to pick up the game. If the ICC does not want to dilute the standard at its showcase tournament, it is a decision in good spirit probably arrived at with sound reason. But in that case, all the test playing nations should be compulsorily asked to tour some of the more important associate countries every year, not just for coaching clinics, but for proper cricket matches. There is no point saying the FTP does not allow it; when it can allow (or at least compromise), for the health of the game's belly, a commercial monster like the IPL which goes on forever, it should allow, at least as some sort of atonement, a few weeks of serious cricketing activity for the associate teams.
I read an inspiring post written by cricinfo's Sidharth Monga just before Ireland's first game in the World Cup about how the Irish cricket team comprises men who converge from different, often routine and humble walks of life for these six weeks to have the fun of their lives. Players from Canada, Netherlands and elsewhere could well be similar, for I do not see a country without a full-fledged cricket pipeline keeping its players employed in the game round the year. The ICC need not dole out lifetime packages for them; the least it can do is give them a chance. Come 2023, one of these teams will perhaps lift the World Cup. Two of them could play the semi-finals in the foresseable future especially if Bangladesh's improved form at home and Ireland's fine displays are anything to go by. And even if none of that happens, the naked joy of seeing men play cricket as a sport and remind us all that it is just a game in this era of crass professionalisation of sport, give it their best and walk out heads held high and a smile in their lips is worth ten World Cups.