A hard slog for the Associates, again
Visitors to India are amazed at how many reruns of old cricket matches Indian TV can show. Yet this one couldn't have been planned. When Netherlands captain Peter Borren walked in for his pre-tournament press conference, the TV in the press room was playing the highlights of their stunning win over England in the 2009 World T20. Borren spotted it from the other end of the room, the length of two cricket pitches, and joked: "That's a good match they are showing." That's when it hit home with renewed finality how much Netherlands will have to go through just to get a chance to do this to a big team again, an upset the whole world celebrated. They made it through the last qualifiers through a miraculous chase of 190 in under 14 overs, but they are being asked to do something similar yet again just to get that chance to have a go at a big side.
Three days of matches per group, four teams each, three matches per team, and only one side left standing from each group. The ICC calls this the first round of the tournament. In fact it is a cruel qualifying round, which will now come only once every four years with the World T20 losing the biennial frequency it enjoyed. In Dharamsala, four teams enter this highly competitive zone, and aside from Netherlands the others too have equally pressing reasons to feel hard done by.
Bangladesh are a Test team, they were excellent in the last 50-over World Cup, they beat India in a bilateral ODI series, they beat Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the recent Asia Cup T20, and are yet having to go through this round with hardly any time to even get their breathing patterns right in the high altitude of the Himalayas.
Ireland have eyes set on bigger targets, of qualifying for the World Cup and also Test cricket, and are having to fend off the other Associate teams who are closing the gap in the Twenty20 format. This is their eighth World Cup, and each one of them has come to them the hard way.
"It's obviously very difficult," Borren said of this stage of the event. "I think every team that is playing in the first round or qualifier or whatever it is called knows that it is going to be very tough. We were fortunate enough to sneak in in 2014. But here, first out of four teams is very difficult."
This is an obviously highly competitive zone, but there is respect and camaraderie for the opponent through shared plight. "You have to feel for for all the teams probably," Borren said. "I feel for those of us who have already gone through a qualifying round, which was pretty difficult. Good teams missed out there. And also feel for the likes of Bangladesh. They are playing Test cricket. They have to come back here to play and qualify. I personally don't see why this tournament… the main draw has to be ten teams, but that's what it is. It's probably a conversation for another day."
Ireland's coach John Bracewell expressed similar respect for Bangladesh. "They're probably the world's most emerging team," Bracewell said. "They're accelerating fast on the learning curve. They're accelerating at the same rate and following the same evolutionary process as Sri Lanka did." Imagine if Sri Lanka were asked to qualify every time on that learning curve.
Ireland are used to much worse, so now they are almost blasé about it. "A lot of tournaments we have played before, we have had to qualify," their captain William Porterfield said. "We have played 11 games in 12 days. To win 10 of them to go through. We are pretty used to it as a squad. That starts again tomorrow. You look at it that way. If you look past tomorrow you are not doing yourselves any favours."
The learning curve has just got steeper with the World T20 to be held once every four years. "It has always been a pretty big stage for us," Borren said. "I am not sure whether it [the reduction in frequency] creates more pressure. Probably means a 100% that I won't be playing another World T20. Might have been able to hang in on for another couple of years. I hope the players don't feel the pressure. We would like to turn the pressure into excitement and into enjoyment.
"The fact that this tournament is now going to be every four years it is a shame for Netherlands cricket and Associate cricket. I suppose it makes it more worthwhile that the guys embrace it. Not to hate the next five days. It is also possible that this might be the time of some of the guys' lives. Really is something you have to cherish. I wish it was every two years."
So as Mashrafe Mortaza and his men struggle to breathe right, as the Netherlands bowlers sweat it out aiming for the top of off without any batsmen in the nets, as Ireland try to juggle their varied priorities, as Oman fend off match referees and other teams questioning the spirit of their cricket, one of the teams, only one of them, will have the times of their lives. The times of their lives: under a week, two groups, four teams each, three matches apiece. That is fleeting.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo