ICC Academy hones Associates' development
At certain points during their riotous World T20 campaign, Netherlands' successes seemed to be fuelled by some sort of otherworldly intervention. How else do you chase 190 in 14 overs? But their progress to the Super 10 stage and their performances therein - they beat England and came close to beating South Africa - weren't just happy accidents. Netherlands were one of the best-prepared teams at the tournament.
In the weeks leading up to the event, five of the Associate teams that would play the qualifying round of the World T20 - all of them except Afghanistan, who were playing the Asia Cup - landed in Dubai Sports City for a training camp at the ICC Academy. The teams didn't all arrive at the same time, however.
"The camp was ten days, five teams, and the Netherlands came in seven days before that, so they were here for more than two weeks," says Will Kitchen, a manager at the ICC Academy. "They came here and were practicing in conditions for 17 days that were really close to Bangladeshi conditions, against local opposition, against guys that are by and large Pakistanis and Indians who are really good in those sorts of conditions. For the last 18 months, the Netherlands, they've dropped out of top-level Associate cricket, but they've gone to the [T20] World Cup and overperformed.
"In what they did here - lots of scenario practice, lots of practice games, really manipulating what it was they were trying to do in terms of their tactical planning, in terms of the lengths they were trying to bowl, how they were trying to attack the spinning ball, on wickets that weren't bouncing very high - there is a really strong case for saying: in any context, if you can practice really specifically, you're probably going to stand a good chance of performing better."
The variety of pitches at the Academy's nets and on its two main Ovals allows teams to work on their game for specific conditions.
"We've got pitches with soil that has been imported from other parts of the world," says Maqbul Dudhia, general manager - sports and events, at Dubai Sports City. "Some subcontinent soil, we have some Australian soil, from Brisbane and the Queensland area, we've even, for experimental purposes, brought in some soil from England.
"Now of course you can't replicate English conditions here, but we can have the behaviour replicated on the turf itself. The two Ovals - we've got ten tracks on each of them - five are subcontinental, five are Australian, and we've been able, with the expertise that we have, to replicate as close as possible the behavior similar to what those wickets do in their home countries."
With all this in place, as well as tools such as ProBatter, to simulate the experience of facing specific bowlers, and Hawkeye, for data gathering, teams can zero in on precise areas of improvement. While it remains to be seen if the Associate teams will be as competitive during next year's 50-over World Cup as they were at the World T20, they will definitely be well-prepared when they land in Australia and New Zealand.
"UAE, for example, one of the major focuses this year is playing the short ball," says Kitchen. "So that camp for two-and-a-half weeks prior to going to the World Cup, here, will be on very quick decks against quick Aussie bowlers with batting coaches to help out Aaqib Javed [the UAE coach] and his team to really accelerate the guys' ability to play the short ball, on quick, bouncy decks.
"I think that is a level of preparation which is outstanding. From a perspective of coaches preparing a team for a performance I think that is an outstanding contribution we're able to make rather than just saying, well, you can play 10 months a year and it's a great ground and all that sort of stuff. Actually, being able to tweak it so it really hones in on the needs of the team - that's what we're here for."
This tweaking, Kitchen says, extends beyond just the pitches. "Any factor that you can identify which is different to what you've been doing anyway, you can manipulate," he says. "In terms of understanding what are the differing physical demands of playing in New Zealand as opposed to the Asian subcontinent, in terms of hydration levels, the sort of food that you eat, clothing that you might wear.
"Batters in the Asian subcontinent, against the spinners, end up wearing caps at times because the wickets are flat. That won't happen in New Zealand. So even those sorts of things you can account for and we manipulate here."
As things currently stand, the ICC Academy's facilities aren't accessible all the way down the cricketing pyramid. The major cricket boards that want to train here fund their own camps, as England did ahead of their 2012 tour to India. Associate teams that have qualified for world events get ICC funding, through the High Performance Programme, to come here for pre-tournament camps. The UAE team, meanwhile, train at the academy all year round.
For the lower-ranked Associates and Affiliates, however, trips to the ICC Academy may not be financially viable. According to Dudhia, the ICC Academy has plans in place to extend its global footprint.
"Should teams want to come here, and they're supported to come here, and have competitions, yes, of course," he says. "We want this place to be used effectively, but we also want to take the expertise out to these places.
"A lot of countries, especially in the second-tier level, there's not enough budget and things like that and I know ICC is trying to do its best to try and support that, but we want to help them to be able to set up good structures in their own countries. There is a lot that is being done, there is a lot that still needs to be done. I think a bigger, stronger, wider cricket community is good for cricket."
Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo