February 27, 2015

Throw open the gates to the Associates

Keeping them in the World Cup will inspire their countrymen to dream bigger and also prevent the game from being monopolised by a small club

Afghanistan's win was good for cricket in general. If only the sport's bosses woke up to their potential © AFP

There was a time when I did not want to invite the Associate members of the ICC to the World Cup. Who were these folks? Why were they taking up precious time and space? Why couldn't we just have the best playing all the time, everywhere? Surely this current, meritocratic way was the way to go - only the best, only the qualified, only the good. No reservations for the weak, no pampering of the incompetent. If you're good enough, you play; if not, you don't. If these folks aren't good, well, that's their fault. They should just pull themselves up by the bootstraps like all the successful people I know. They should stop asking for handouts, for invites to parties where they don't belong.

And on and on. My head was full of the usual bovine excrement that continues to animate many contemporary political and economic debates. The observant reader will not have failed to notice the structural similarity of the claims I used to faithfully parrot to those made in disputes over and about many issues today - ranging from affirmative action to state regulation of the economy, and others.

Too many of the folks who make arguments like these are in the position of those worthies who are born at third base and think they hit a triple to get there. But no one gets by or along without a helping hand. We just conveniently forget that we were helped by one. (I think many thoughts like these as I raise my two-year-old daughter.) And if you think a meritocracy exists in cricket, especially in qualifying for the World Cup, then I've got a bridge I'd like to sell you.

I'm writing this post after Afghanistan have beaten Scotland in the World Cup for their first ever World Cup win. There are many today who are outraged, all over again, by the ICC's decision to shrink the World Cup and reduce the participation of Associates in future World Cups. Some will cheer this decision, animated as they will be by the kinds of arguments I have already highlighted above. But I wish they would pay some attention to cricket's ecology.

Cricket has to spread if it is to survive. Cricket has to find new fans, new players, new ways of conceiving the game within the context of disparate cultures, new voices with which to describe the game

Cricket is currently propped up by one country's finances and fans. While two older, traditional powers still see themselves as relevant agenda-makers, they have been rapidly outpaced by cricket's colossus, and as the ECB's latest thinking (which essentially says: "We want our own IPL, our own Big Bash") shows, they are following in the BCCI's wake. This concentration of power is unhealthy for the continued flourishing of the game. Not only does it concentrate cricketing fortunes into a single point of failure, it ensures a narrow, impoverished vision of the game's future.

Cricket has to spread if it is to survive. This is no longer an idle argument to be made as an act of charity extended toward those not as competent in the game as your superstar heroes. Rather it is a claim which has existential import. Cricket has to find new fans, new players, new ways of conceiving the game within the context of disparate cultures, new voices with which to describe the game. Otherwise, it will become all too soon, an increasingly marginalised oddity in the world of sport. (It already has that status even in many of the Full Member nations.)

In 1979, an Associate nation beat a team that was then reckoned incompetent in the one-day game. Seventeen years later, that same nation won the World Cup. (Their opponents back in that 1979 match won the tournament four years after that game.) I'm not suggesting any Associate nation currently playing in the World Cup will win the 2031 edition. But I'm suggesting that the many players on display today might be inspiring many more back in their respective countries to dream of emulating their feats. That emulation will not come about if the current policy of not-benign, almost-malignant neglect is followed.

Opening the gates will not let in the barbarians; it will merely let in those who have been clamouring to join the party for a long time, and who promise, in their best moments, to shake up the game, and to perhaps even jolt it out of the rut that it seems to be committing itself to. They might, because of the inherent uncertainties of the shorter formats of the game, introduce some much-needed frisson into proceedings that all too quickly have become predictable and mundane.

Cricket's managers too often forget that generosity begets generosity; they imagine cricket administration is a zero-sum game, in which a gain for the Associates can only be earned at the cost of a loss for the Full Members. If only they could bring themselves to see that growing cricket's family might enable the game to grow elsewhere, to put down new roots in climes that might bring about a growth and flourishing of the game in directions and dimensions previously unimagined.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. @EyeonthePitch

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