The rise of the Associates
Ever wish international cricket's schedule was set up like a league? That every team played every other over a set period of time, and at the end a deserving winner emerged? That's exactly how it works, just not at the level you think.
The World Cricket League (WCL), which all ICC member countries apart from the ten Test-playing nations are eligible to participate in, is a well-structured and organised competition and has been for the last seven years. The WCL is designed so that there are "no games without context", Tim Anderson, the ICC's global development manager, explained. All matches are part of a qualification system that includes promotion and relegation.
The competition was first organised in 2007, with six divisions, and played over a two-year period. In 2009 it was expanded to eight divisions and the cycle increased to four years.
Each division, apart from Division Eight, contains six teams that play each other once over the course of a week, followed by playoffs for positions, including a final. In Division Eight, the teams are divided into two groups of four. The top teams from each division are promoted to the one above and the bottom two in each relegated, apart from Division Eight, where five teams drop out and are replaced by the next best five, chosen from regional events (Africa Divisions, Europe Divisions and so on).
At the end of each four-year cycle, 12 teams (all six Division One teams, four from Division Two and two from Division Three) compete in a World Cup qualifier to determine who will participate in the 50-over showpiece. This is how Afghanistan rose through the ranks from Division Five in 2008 to secure a spot in the 2015 World Cup. After each qualifier the two lowest-ranked sides from Division One are relegated.
You'd be forgiven for wondering why cricket can be run in this sensible fashion at lower levels but at the top have a haphazard FTP, under which sometimes one team does not tour another for almost a decade (South Africa last visited Sri Lanka eight years ago, for example), or one team does not host another at all (India haven't invited Bangladesh to tour in 14 years). The answer is because the Full Members, who have decision-making powers at the ICC, have mandated it that way.
The management of Associate cricket is not something Full Members want to spend time on, so they are happy to leave it to the ICC to handle. Their own calendar, on the other hand, Full Members want total control over, because Test-playing countries, particularly India, England and Australia, generate substantial revenue, especially when they play each other. Associate cricket does not.
Many Associates, including Ireland, Afghanistan, Scotland and Papua New Guinea, bring in more money than the ICC gives them, either through sponsorships or government grants, but they do not deal in big bucks. As a result their schedules do not have to be dictated to by the bottom line, and so they have no qualms accepting the ICC's structure.
Make no mistake, though: it is money that keeps Associate cricket alive and running the way it currently is. When the ICC renegotiated its television rights in 2008, the increase in revenue gave them the ability to inject a dose of cash into the WCL, and also set up the high-performance funding scheme to reward teams that did well.
In that light, Afghanistan's story is less a fairy tale and more a case of securing funding through proper planning and sound domestic structures. "Often it is the countries with good domestic governance that end up being successful in the long run," Anderson said. "Good administration often underpins good performance. A lot of successful performances are achieved because of excellent structures. Afghanistan are a beacon for good administration. Ireland are another example. They have one of the top administrations in the cricketing world."
The ICC sees no reason why more fledgling cricket countries cannot emulate those examples. There is enough cricket activity taking place across the board - with the number of participants in Associate and Affiliate countries having doubled in the last four years to a million people - and enough guidance and support on offer from the game's governing body if it is wanted. "We offer advice in terms of managing organisations and generally improving cricket. Members that alert us to their needs are more likely to get assistance," Anderson said.
The ICC's development arm believes it can declare the work it has done so far a success because of the performances the Associate teams have produced. Currently there are more competitive Associate teams against Full Members than ever before. "The gap between the leading Associates and lower Test teams is becoming minimal," Anderson said. "The feeling among cricket fans when an Associate beats a Full Member is that it is no longer a flash in the pan."
As proof of that, Anderson referenced the five-week period between February and March in which four different Associate members between them recorded five victories against Full Members. Ireland beat West Indies in the opening match of a two-game T20 series in the Caribbean, Afghanistan beat Bangladesh at the Asia Cup, Ireland then defeated Zimbabwe in the World T20 qualifiers, Hong Kong shocked Bangladesh in the qualifiers, and Netherlands humbled England in the main draw.
The Associates are making an ever-greater impact on the world cricket stage, and to build on that they want more fixtures against Full Members. It was their hope that in the ICC's restructuring there would emerge a system to include Associates in more ODIs, and that that could form an element of World Cup qualification.
That is unlikely to happen. Instead, what the Associates got from the latest ICC board meeting was the opportunity to play Test cricket in some form: the winners of the 2015-17 and 2019-21 Intercontinental Cup will play the bottom-ranked Test team in home-and-away two-match series. As things stand now, that Associate will not qualify to become an 11th Test team; they will simply get a taste of Test cricket, in what will be called the ICC Test Challenge. The qualification for the 2016 World T20 will be the same as it was for 2014, while the criteria for playing in the 50-over World Cup are yet to be decided on.
"Some of these changes are exciting for Associates, particularly as it will afford one or more of them the opportunity to break into Test cricket. Although much of the detail around the resolutions is still to be worked out, we believe the developing world will be well looked after," Anderson said.
As well taken care of as the Full Members will allow them to be.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent