May 24, 2009

What have they done to deserve this?

The ICC's decision fast-track the USA into the World Twenty20 Qualifiers is a breach of its avowed principles

In recent years the ICC has established a clearly defined pyramid structure for world cricket, from the ICC Test Championship through to the lower reaches, the Associate and Affiliate game.

The theory that the humblest side could progress through to the ultimate goal of the World Cup was almost borne out by the progress of Afghanistan; a year ago they were languishing in the fifth division of the World Cricket League, but after a string of promotions, last month they came within one game of qualifying for the 2011 World Cup. As it is, they have become a fully fledged ODI country. It's been cricket's Cinderella story.

However, earlier this week, the ICC's development committee brushed aside the whole idea that the structure was a meritocracy and made what appears to be nothing more than a quite brazen commercial decision. The USA, who since their ignominious jolly at the 2004 Champions Trophy have achieved nothing of note, were shamelessly handed a place at the ICC World Twenty20 Qualifiers later this year, despite not even being in the top 20 Associates.

The Qualifiers should be a showdown between the leading six Associates/Affiliates for a place at the next ICC tournament in the Caribbean in 2010. The inclusion of UAE, ranked seventh, was justifiable, as they host the event. But the USA?

The ICC has denied the decision was based on anything other than cricketing reasons. The logic was that USA were a side down on their luck because their own board had been "dysfunctional" (to use a former ICC chief executive's own words) for four years, and so were in need of a helping hand. And with the main tournament taking place in the West Indies, there was a local reason for them to be included.

By running roughshod over its own structures, the ICC has made clear that profit will always win through. There is no cricketing reason whatsoever for treating the USA as it has

Just over a year ago the USA Cricket Association was in the wilderness, suspended for a second time from the ICC because of their utterly shambolic infighting. They needed external help to revamp their constitution, held acrimonious elections, and when Gladstone Dainty, the president through the troubled times, was incredibly re-elected, behaved in the same dismissive and secretive way as they always had. A shaft of light came with the appointment of Don Lockerbie as the new CEO last month, but much still remains unclear, from the lack of accounts to a much-criticised and dubious selection process.

That the USA is seen by many as the game's great potential goldmine is hardly a secret. But for the shambles within the USA Cricket Association, grounds in Florida, New York and California might well have staged ODIs by now, and for a time Florida was mentioned as a potential venue to host matches in the 2007 World Cup. What's more, Lockerbie is well respected and there is optimism about what he can do to turn things around.

However, by running roughshod over its own structures, the ICC has made clear that profit will always win through. With 10 million first-generation Asian expats in North America and 200,000 of them dollar millionaires, some of the ICC's present and future big guns can see the massive potential of a largely untapped market. There is no cricketing reason whatsoever for treating the USA as the ICC has; but money talks volumes in Dubai - even if tomorrow rather than today.

It also raises a concern that this could be the thin end of the wedge. Despite assurances that this is a one-off, the ICC has also been wooing China, with its 1.3 billion potential consumers, in the last couple of years. Is it too far-fetched to imagine them being given direct entry to a qualifying event in a few years' time? And why not go all the way and allow them straight into the World Cup? Imagine the sponsorship opportunities that would bring.

The other unanswered question is where this idea originated. It was certainly not the brainchild of the Associates, and while presented as the initiative of the ICC's development committee, that might not be as clear-cut as it seems.

The ICC has done a great job at raising the profile of the game outside the top flight, and it has many good people working hard behind the scenes to expand cricket across the world. Sadly, this one decision has undermined much of those efforts and shown that when there is money to be made, the ICC is quite willing to do what it takes to get it.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa