World Cup 2007 March 27, 2007

Less is more

Martin Williamson argues that the ICC needs to rethink the way it handles the Associates at future World Cups



Bermuda's heavyweight Dwayne Leverock is lifted off his feet by Irvine Romaine - but his side had little else to celebrate © AFP

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So the first stage of the World Cup is over, although the wholesale elimination of the so-called minnows, which the format was designed to ensure, has not happened. If you include Bangladesh with the Associates in the minnow category, they have bloodied two of the most important noses in the world game.

The appearance of Bangladesh in the second round is a real a success for the expansion of the game and a most welcome reward for their cricket-mad public. That it came at the expense of neighbours India was a bonus for them, even if it devastated the hoards of commercial men that increasingly dictate the running of the game. The other surprise package, Ireland, secured their own place by beating a shambolic Pakistan side; in fairness, their tie with Zimbabwe, while a great result for them and the tournament, was not a seismic shock, so far have the Zimbabweans fallen in recent years.

Listening to the television commentators during the first round, you might be mistaken for thinking that all the Associates need is a bit more cash to enable them to go professional, a few more matches, and, bingo. It was also noticeable that those same analysts were reluctant to be too critical of the Associates, even when the situation demanded. Perhaps claims that the Global Cricket Corporation, the faceless body that paid hundreds of millions for the rights to the tournament, had ordered the commentators not to be negative was closer to the truth than anyone suspected.

The reality is that while, overall, the World Cup has been enhanced by the presence of the Associates, it has not done much to help them and their development. It will take cash and more exposure over a longer period to make anything other than a short-term difference - you only have to look at the stagnation in Kenya after their semi-final appearance in 2003 to realise that. In a few weeks the excitement will have worn off, assuming there was any in the first place. Precious few in Holland and Canada were probably aware that they were in a World Cup anyway.

What was clear was that while several of the Associates were deserving of their places, others were not. That was not their fault. It's all very well preaching global expansion, but its success is not judged by the number of teams participating in the World Cup.

The ICC rightly promotes its mission to expand the game, but expansion is not as simple as allowing more [Associates] into such a major tournament, especially one which is already ridiculously bloated
There have been repeated comparisons to football's World Cup, and the fact that that includes 32 teams in the finals. Football, however, has a truly global reach and there are dozens of countries who could justifiably claim to be good enough to take part. Cricket is far more like rugby union, whose own World Cup takes place later this year. There are ten or so decent teams and the rest of them to do no more than make up numbers. That is not to say they shouldn't be there - of course, they should - just not so many of them at any one time.

One of the problems was the way the Associates qualified. They secured their places almost two years ago, courtesy of a top-six finish in the ICC Trophy. Much water has passed under the bridge since then - England won the Ashes around the same time, and look what's happened to them since. Some countries have improved, but others, most notably and spectacularly Bermuda, have gone into reverse gear. The World Cup should be about the best of the moment, or at least of the last year. If that means shifting the ICC Trophy so that it takes place within 12 months of the World Cup, then so be it.

Then there is the number of Associates. The ICC rightly promotes its mission to expand the game, but expansion is not as simple as allowing more of them into such a major tournament, especially one which is already ridiculously bloated.

And why on earth should Full Member countries earn an automatic place in the tournament - just because they sit at the game's top table? It's a classic case of politics and schmoozing overriding common sense.

In that regard, the Champions Trophy got it right. The leading eight one-day nations at a certain date should be there by right, but the two tail-end Charlies should be forced to play-off against the leading Associates in a mini World Cup. If the aim is to give Associates some meaningful high-class cricket, then such a tournament, with the top four qualifying, would produce some tough battles. If it was a round-robin league, then the best would inevitably float to the surface.

It won't happen, however, and for one reason. Money. The ICC cannot risk the prospect of any of the major income streams - sorry, countries - being outside the top eight and so potentially missing out. The financial ramifications of India and Pakistan's eliminations last week will be felt for some time. At the other end of the scale Zimbabwe, who would struggle to beat several of the Associates, remain, with the support of the ICC.



Ireland's captain Trent Johnston does a victory lap around Sabina Park after his side's sensational win over Pakistan © Getty Images
Meanwhile, five of the six Associates head home. Kenya did as well as expected in a tough group, as did Netherlands. Scotland were left licking their wounds after another disappointing tournament - perhaps there are comparisons to be made with football in their case. Canada were as we all knew they would be; over reliant on a few ageing players and a batch of players qualified by residence rather than birth or upbringing - it would have been interesting had they had to sing the national anthem before a match. And then there was Bermuda. While Dwayne Leverock's diving and ground-shaking catch will be the iconic on-field moment from the event, they were simply not good enough and had no right to be there.

And so Ireland keep flying the flag, and rightly so. Although the three player interviews after the Zimbabwe match were with people who sounded extremely Australian or South African, their enthusiasm and joyous support has enlivened the whole competition. They won't win - hell, they are unlikely to win another game - but they have upset the apple cart and, more pertinently, the number crunchers. For that alone, let's all get behind them.

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Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo