UAE's fight further flouts ten-nation World Cup theory
"The World Cup itself, the premium event, without exception should be played between teams that are evenly matched and competitive."
So said the ICC chief executive David Richardson in the lead-up to this tournament. It was his way of justifying the decision to trim the World Cup from 14 teams back to 10 at the next event in England in 2019. No more Associates, no more one-sided thrashings, no more boring, meaningless pool matches. That was the ICC's theory.
On Thursday in Nelson, UAE offered further proof, if it was necessary, that the ICC's theory is a load of rubbish. The eighth match of this World Cup was played between a Full Member, Zimbabwe, and an Associate, UAE. And it was the closest contest yet, a tense battle full of momentum changes and uncertainty. By the ICC's reckoning, it shouldn't happen.
Zimbabwe got away with the win, but only just. One level-headed, mature partnership between Sean Williams and Craig Ervine was the difference. They came together at 167 for 5, with 119 runs still needed from 104 balls. If UAE were not favourites, they must have been mighty close. In the end, experience got Zimbabwe over the line.
Experience that UAE simply do not have, and cannot have. It was their first ODI against a Full Member nation in nearly seven years. It was almost their first win against one. A few fielding mistakes crept in, in a few loose balls, just the odd nervy moment. Williams, in his 71st ODI, steered Zimbabwe to victory. UAE, in their 19th as a team, fell short.
There is such potential beyond the Test world. Everyone knows how good Ireland are, their win at the same ground against West Indies this week was not unexpected. It is a disgrace, an insult to both Ireland and to the cricket public that they may not be part of the next World Cup. Scotland got to within three wickets of upsetting New Zealand this week.
Afghanistan are the only Associate to have been roundly beaten so far in the World Cup, but they were far from humiliated. They were the first team in the tournament to keep an opposition - Bangladesh - to sub-300 batting first in Australia. Only one game between Full Members so far has been remotely close - South Africa's win over Zimbabwe. Evenly matched and competitive, huh?
If the ICC thinks the Associates are pushovers, they are living in the past, which would be no great surprise. This is no longer the era of Sultan Zarawani wearing a floppy hat to face Allan Donald, of sides like East Africa and Bermuda making up the numbers but never getting close to competitive.
UAE are considered the weakest of the 14 teams at this World Cup, but they batted with skill and boldness, and for the most part fielded sharply and bowled tightly. After the match, Williams was asked if the gap between the Full Members and the Associates had shrunk.
"The gap has closed a very, very long way," Williams said. "I believe that every single team at this World Cup deserves to be at this World Cup."
UAE surprised Zimbabwe with their ability to strike cleanly down the ground. The finest example was the sublime six that brought Shaiman Anwar his half-century from 37 balls when he drove Tinashe Panyangara back over his head. It was the shot of a man who belongs at international level, as were the nine fours that he struck.
The 43-year-old star batsman Khurram Khan scored 45 and steadied UAE after they wobbled to 40 for 2 early. Until he was well caught at backward point, Khurram looked so calm and composed that nobody would have guessed this was his World Cup debut. He may well become the cult figure of this tournament, if the #KhurramKhanfacts Twitter hashtag is any indication.
Then there were late boundaries struck by Amjad Javed and Mohammad Naveed, the Nos. 8 and 9. Amjad was powerful down the ground, not with wild slogs. There are No. 8s in Full Member sides who offer less with the bat than Javed. As if to prove he was also a force with the ball, he later clocked Sikandar Raza on the helmet with a bouncer.
Their bowlers might lack the pace of most sides, but they find ways to contain. Zimbabwe opener Regis Chakabva was so stuck that when he trod on his stumps for 35 off 62 it was actually a blessing for Zimbabwe. In the field, UAE dived and worked hard, letting a few through only as the innings wore on. Their captain, Mohammad Tauqir, seemed almost offended when asked if their fielding let them down.
"A couple of runs here and there," Tauqir said. "We were better than Zimbabwe in fielding."
He was right. Zimbabwe were awfully sloppy in the field. And considering how little UAE have played at the elite level, their performance was admirable. The ICC has spoken of ensuring more exposure for Ireland and Afghanistan to the Full Members in the next few years, to help them qualify for the World Cup. But what of teams like UAE?
"If we play only at Associate level, we cannot improve the game," Tauqir said. "The more we play at the highest level we can improve our cricket."
This was the first time UAE had played Zimbabwe in a one-day international. That in itself is an indictment of cricket's blinkered approach. The Full Members should play far more often against the Associates and Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, as the lowest-ranked Full Members, should be front and centre in such fixtures.
But between the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, Zimbabwe played only one ODI series against an Associate side, drawing 2-2 with Afghanistan last year. Bangladesh played 50 ODIs between the World Cups and only one - yes, one - was against an Associate: Afghanistan in the Asia Cup.
Such fixtures must be far more frequent. UAE here in Nelson, and Ireland here earlier this week, and Scotland in Dunedin, and Afghanistan in Canberra, have shown the gap between the haves and have nots has shrunk. The Associates are competitive, and must be respected as such. A 10-team World Cup is short-sighted and short-changes the game.
In the end, Zimbabwe got out of jail, but the monopoly held by the ICC's ten Full Members was brought into question once again. Richardson and the ICC should take note that this match in Nelson was as evenly matched and competitive as this World Cup has been.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale