Ireland take trophy, Afghans the headlines
It took 12 teams 54 matches spread over 19 days to determine the best of the rest, the countries next in the queue for an ICC handout and those fortunate four who will play in the 2011 World Cup. The ICC World Cup Qualifiers lurked deferentially in the shadow of the looming Indian Premier League, yet held its own as the Associates' showcase event and even inducted a war-torn nation as one of the sport's own. Beat that, Mr Modi.
With the favourites Ireland reaching and winning the final, it appears that the whole show went to form, and statistically that is true. Of the top six Associates, only Bermuda lost their ODI status, but we'll come to that particular miserable tale later. Had Scotland lost their international ranking - they escaped by a cat's whisker and performed poorly - the ICC would have had two countries into whom four years of investment and nurturing were practically wasted. Instead, bar the occasional flabbergasting upset, the top eight countries have all shown encouraging improvement to justify their rankings. The ICC is pelted with vitriol almost by default by world cricket, but its commitment and hands-on approach to developing nations deserves acknowledgement.
Cricket being cricket, the tournament was not without incident. After all, the majority of these players remain amateurs, forsaking careers and families for national pride or simply their own love of the sport. Even Ireland - the envy of opposing coaches with their increasing professionalism - had their difficulties. They were outplayed by the romantics' choice of refugees, Afghanistan, and the call-up by England of Eoin Morgan led to rumours of a split between him and the towering presence of his coach, Phil Simmons. Morgan is not, and cannot, be blamed for seeking pastures new, or pastures rich. International cricket is his ambition and, judging by his eight innings in this tournament, not to mention his form for Middlesex, probably his calling.
Likewise Netherlands' Ryan ten Doeschate, who cut short his international appearances to commit to Essex. To Netherlands' credit, they survived without his sublime allround abilities, though ironically it was another ECB-contracted batsman, Alexei Kervezee, still only 19, who anchored many of their innings (461 runs @ 51.22). A brilliant fielder and increasingly mature batsman, it may not be long before he swaps Netherlands for New Road on a more full-time basis. These were the undercurrents of irritation which gently rumbled throughout this tournament, but it was ever thus for Associate cricket, never more so than for the European nations.
The story of the past few weeks, however, came from a squad of men hailing from a country that most Europeans associate with two terrible Ts: terrorism and Taliban. Afghanistan stole the hearts, upset the odds and left several teams looking foolishly complacent. Ireland were rolled over by 22 runs, with Hamid Hassan - a fast bowler destined for county cricket one day - snaring five. Scotland, too, were shrugged aside quite comfortably, as were Bermuda. These were victories not of a squad of wannabes, but of cricketers whose ambition stretches far beyond this level.
They blew hot and cold, expectedly, but several figures (and characters) enhanced their reputations handsomely. Alongside Hassan was Shapoor Zadran, a tall and accurate left-arm seamer. Karim Khan, too, hits the ball cleaner than most and when his injured finger prevented him from standing behind the stumps, he turned to offspin and picked up 11 cheap wickets.
Many put their journey to the Super Eights down to fluke or fortune but, by the end of the tournament, opposing teams readily conceded Afghanistan as a talented team and potent threat to their World Cup push, however extraordinary their backgrounds may be. The funding they will now receive will transform their lives as people and cricketers, yet Afghanistan remains a country desperately seeking an identity other than one at war with the west. Some grass pitches would help, too, but now is not the time to pontificate negatively while the celebrations in Peshawar, Jalalabad and Kabul resonate raucously and justifiably.
From the good, to Bermuda, whose performance was less a disappointment, more a depressingly predictable blight of underachievement. Poor David Hemp topped the overall averages with 557 runs at 185.66, batting and fielding with the professionalism and self-pride you would expect. With nobody for support, Hemp resembled a man with a bilge pump on a sinking ship while his crew had taken the lifeboats and champagne and were sailing to calmer waters.
Gus Logie's attack on the players' lack of motivation and focus angered the players, some of whom would rather turn their arm over, gently, in domestic cricket than represent their country. Three opposing players told Cricinfo that their demotion was both unsurprising and deserved. For now, they are out of the limelight. That alone might be sufficient inspiration to breed a new, ambitious Bermuda. Just don't hold your breath.
Bermuda's tribulations serve as a reminder to other nations and the ICC. With funding comes responsibility. In that respect, ICC is much like the managing director of a business. It is as keen to help these nations - apprentices, if you like - as they are themselves, and will spoon-feed them money, equipment, and create a structure upon which they will hopefully build. It can't, however, breast feed them forever. The weaning process has to happen at some point.
Richard Done, ICC's High Performance Manager, cut to the chase at the beginning of the tournament when he outlined his and ICC's blueprint for Associate cricket. Top of the list is professionalisation - a safety net for players who can then concentrate on their own performances without the burden of finding an employer willing to let them take four weeks off every now and then to play cricket. Amateur status still rules the roost. The UAE, for example, are entirely amateur yet are screaming with raw ability (their opening bowler, Amjad Javed, smashed 164). Were cricket to be their full-time career, with a proper managerial board in place, UAE and other countries would improve out of sight. There is no overnight solution, however; look what US$11m of investment by Bermuda's government has had on the sport in their country.
The top six have plenty on their schedule, and the next intriguing instalment is to see how Afghanistan fare as four-day cricketers in the ICC Intercontinental Cup. Ireland may have lofted the trophy on Sunday, and continue to stretch ahead of the pack, but there is no doubt which team has stolen their thunder these past three weeks. The next four years promise to be as exhilarating and unpredictable as Kabul itself.
Will Luke is assistant editor of Cricinfo