The Associates in 2009 January 3, 2010

Big brothers' indifference hurts the little guys

Little help from those at the top, even less from sponsors, and the ICC's bizarre decisions have left most of the Associates looking at a bleak 2010

The year was not a particularly good one for Associates, and ended with little reason for them to look ahead with much optimism. For all the promising rhetoric from those running the game, as well as substantial increases in central funding, actions speak louder than words. This year, yet again the best of the rest were left to scramble for the few crumbs that fell from the ICC's top table.

The biggest concern remains the overall reluctance of the bigger countries to take time out of their increasingly busy schedules to play against the Associates. It is widely agreed the best way for the likes of Kenya and Ireland to bridge the chasm between them and the top eight Full Members is to play top-quality cricket. In 2009 only England and Australia played against any of the Associates, and even then it was only once each. Kenya managed 10 matches against Zimbabwe, who are themselves desperate for a better class of opponent. The gulf in ability was brought home when Zimbabwe won the lot.

Perhaps the most depressing revelation came at the year-end when it emerged South Africa demanded almost $100,000 from Kenya to even consider putting out a side against them. That sum would have represented about 15% of Kenya's entire annual income. It served to underline that talk is one thing, actually helping quite another.

The explosion of Twenty20 in the guise of the IPL, Champions League, and no end of major boards looking to milk the cash cow is only likely to make arranging matches even less likely. However, it is Twenty20 that might yet be the best hope for the Associates. The shortening of the game actually reduces the differences in ability and gives smaller countries a chance to bloody a nose or two. Those of us who were fortunate enough to watch Netherlands humble England at Lord's on the damp opening day of the ICC World Twenty20 will not forget the scenes of celebration that went on long into the June night. Perhaps it is in that format that their real future lies.

The World Cup Qualifiers in South Africa in April were the high point of the Associate calendar and they attracted the attention of even the non-cricketing media when Afghanistan secured ODI status and came within a whisker of making it to the 2011 World Cup. It was the conclusion of a remarkable story. They had reached South Africa after a succession of promotions up the ICC's commendable World Cricket League. Twenty years ago the game was unknown in the country but it was taught to refugees in camps in Pakistan, who took it back home with them when the Taliban regime was ousted.

Afghanistan replaced Bermuda, ending the latter's four-year flirtation with ODI status, which started full of promise but rapidly descended into infighting and repeated on-field embarrassment. The worry is whether Afghanistan's progress has already reached its ceiling. The introduction of funding for a niche sport, in a country whose politics brushes shoulders with greed so readily, leaves the ICC in a difficult position. Professionalisation is the board's priority for Associates - a lofty ambition for more established nations, let alone poor Afghanistan. Scotland, too, looked a shadow of the side they should have been, missing out on a World Cup place and only just managing to keep their ODI status.

The first-class Intercontinental Cup rumbled on, an essentially good tournament that seems to have rather lost its way, though the players continue to respect the importance of exposure to four-day cricket. It was bolstered by the inclusion of Zimbabwe, a move to help them prepare for their own return to Test cricket, but that came at a cost. Namibia, runners-up in 2008, were unceremoniously booted out to make way for them, a decision bizarrely based on their one-day form.

If that reflected badly on the ICC, then what followed was even worse. It was decided to add an extra team to the World Twenty20 Qualifiers in early 2010. The obvious candidates were Namibia, the highest-placed finishers in South Africa, but instead the ICC fast-tracked USA, a team in international isolation for several years as a result of their dysfunctional board. The decision reeked of putting commercial ambition ahead of what was right.

The USA Cricket Association's new chief executive, Don Lockerbie, outlined ambitious plans for high-profile international matches in the States, an IPL-style tournament and professionalisation of the game within a few years. It was enough to have the ICC's commercial department licking its lips, but to date, there has been little evidence of progress.

The cricketing colonisation of another vast untapped market, China, remained a goal of administrators. To hear some of them talk, it might have seemed the country was within a few years of becoming a cricketing superpower. The on-field evidence remained uncompelling.

There was the almost customary internal bickering within the Associates. Canada and Netherlands both got through a middle order of chief executives, while the image of Kenya as a haven for corruption resurfaced when its CEO, Tom Tikolo, was forced to quit after he was found to have mislaid funds. Sponsors too tightened their belts. Both Scotland and Canada lost their chief backers; Canada, damagingly, less than a year into a three-year deal after Scotiabank flagged concerns with the value of the contract.

Ireland continued to plough an ambitious furrow under their young and charismatic CEO, Warren Deutrom. Despite losing more players to England, their increased professionalism marks them out as Associate cricket's showcase side. They comfortably won the World Cup Qualifiers in South Africa, and outlined plans to apply for Test status later in the year.

They also came within three runs of dumping their rather sniffy neighbours on their backsides in an ODI in Belfast. Perhaps the risk of humiliation is the real reason the big boys steer clear of the Associates.

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

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