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Last week saw the final of the inaugural Intercontinental Cup, the ICC's first-class competition for non Test-playing countries
November 30, 2004
There were some doubts at the outset. I raise my hand here as being one of those who feared that some games might be woefully one-sided and that first-class records would tumble. Canada's opener, against the United States, fuelled those suspicions when John Davison took 17 for 137, the best figures since Jim Laker's 19-wicket haul against Australia in 1956. But thereafter most matches were competitive (with the exception of the semi-finals and final) and no individual's performance threatened to cause seizures among the statistical fraternity.
At least it gave a chance to those players who wouldn't normally get near a first-class match, or even a three-day one, and in that respect it was a success. It also afforded the countries a definite and realistic goal, as opposed to tournaments such as the World Cup and Champions Trophy, where they make up the numbers and are invariably the whipping boys.
But for all this, the Intercontinental Cup has highlighted one very worrying fact. That is that the gap between the Test top 10 (and this is being charitable to Bangladesh and Zimbabwe) and those in this competition is far wider than anyone dared think.
The finals were a case in point. Three of the four finalists were probably there by right as the strongest on display, while the fourth, the United Arab Emirates, while not out of their depth, benefited from being part of a weak group. But the semi-finals were hardly contests, and while the final was between the two best teams, Canada were without their one class act in Davison, and were just not able to compete.
And of the four sides, only one - Kenya - could be labelled a genuine home-grown squad. The other three had too many foreign-born players to be considered truly representative. Scotland contained six born abroad, while Canada and UAE each had only four born on home soil. That was not the fault of the ICC, and is no reason not to repeat the event next year. But the results tend to show the quality of ex-pats attracted to those countries, rather than their indigenous standards.
As for Kenya, 18 months ago they were being touted by some as virtual dead-certs for Test status before the next World Cup - largely, and confusingly, on the back of their success in one-day cricket. At Abu Dhabi, however, they were humiliated by Scotland.
It would be easy to explain Kenya's situation in terms of the players' strike which robbed them of most of their African participants. But that would be to overlook the recent dismal showing of the full pre-strike side in the Champions Trophy, and besides, many of the strikers are not that good anyway. Of Kenya's genuinely international-class players, only one (Ravindu Shah) was playing. Four (Steve Tikolo, Collins Obuya, Hitesh Modi and Martin Suji) were not available for one reason or another. Those five aside, the cupboard is fairly bare.
Of the countries that didn't qualify for the finals, the best are probably Namibia, Ireland and the Netherlands - the last two victims of being included in far and away the strongest group. All three can boast sides comprising predominantly home-grown players, but none of them is close to three-day standard. USA, whose squad for the recent Champions Trophy resembled a United Nations pensioners' outing, have too many domestic issues and appear to be almost wholly reliant on a large, first-generation ex-pat population.
If the gulf is to be narrowed, then basic domestic leagues need to be established in three or four of the best-of-the-rest nations, and those countries need to be given access to better cricket, which invariably means playing overseas. Namibia are taking part in Zimbabwe's one-day tournament, and Kenya spent last winter in the Caribbean, but these are isolated cases. Almost none of the players taking part in the Intercontinental Cup will play first-class cricket, or anything other than a one-day game, before next year's competition.
Scotland's progress underlines the value of playing regularly against good opposition. They now take part in 16 matches every summer against first-class counties in the National League and a number of the squad also play 2nd XI county games. "They were well drilled and thoroughly professional in their approach and expectations," one of the Kenyan side told me. "They play against good bowlers and batsmen all the time. We didn't even have a proper game between playing Namibia and the finals."
Scotland are also well funded and have a sponsor to further boost their coffers. They arrived in Sharjah with a physio and a technical director. Kenya had neither.
The ICC is helping with funding, but it would accelerate the process further if they financed indigenous players from developing countries to play in league cricket in major ones, and further underwrote the costs of regular tours. More exposure against better opponents is vital.
The ICC is tightening the rules on qualification, and future tournaments should be more representative. In the short term that will mean that the standard will probably fall, and the second-string world order will undergo some change. This competition should not be all about quality, but should grow to be a genuine indicator of who is ready to make the giant leap to join the big boys.
Martin Williamson is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo.
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