March 2, 2011

A wake-up call for a cliquey sport

Ireland have proudly carried the associates' standard for two World Cups in succession. They're not asking for free lunches, just for a fair chance

Just how do you begin to make sense of what happened under lights at the Chinnaswamy Stadium on Wednesday? The cricket World Cup has seen upsets before. Zimbabwe beat Australia in 1983, and Ireland first came to prominence with that thrilling triumph over Pakistan in 2007. But Australia in 83 were a team in decline and the Pakistanis were a shambles. England, as they showed on Sunday night against India, are an upwardly mobile force.

You can look to other sports and still not find an answer. Argentina lost to Cameroon in the opening game of Italia 90, while the French slipped on a banana skin against Senegal 12 years later. But the French, with Zinedine Zidane injured, had played one tournament too many as a group, while the Argentines had always been mercurial and prone to implosion.

Comparisons with Ireland's Italia 90 adventure aren't accurate either. They may have been unfancied quarter-finalists but the man who scored against England, Kevin Sheedy, was a household name, a legend of the great Everton sides of the 1980s. Rugby comparisons fail too, because Brian O'Driscoll, who led them to a first Grand Slam in 61 years in 2010, has long been recognised as one of the game's greats.

So, where do we slot Kevin O'Brien and this innings for the ages? The only comparison that makes sense to me is with another team that played in green 42 years ago. The New York Jets were huge underdogs going into Super Bowl III against Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts, but Joe Namath played the game of his life to upset the odds.

The Jets were part of the much-derided American Football League, the new kids on the block. Against the might of the National Football League, they weren't given a chance. Their win paved the way for parity, for a level playing field.

The O'Brien family has some previous when it comes to such heroics. Let's not forget that it was Niall's classy 72 that provided the ballast for the tricky run-chase against Pakistan. A game earlier, Kevin's sturdy medium-pace produced a wicket-maiden when Zimbabwe needed just nine to win from 12 balls. They would only tie.

How wonderful it would be if this triumph could do for Irish cricket what the Jets did for the AFL. Ireland have proudly carried the Associates' standard for two World Cups in succession. They're not asking for free lunches, just for a fair chance.

"The ICC have made the decision to reduce it [the next World Cup] to 10 teams and that's pretty disappointing," said William Porterfield afterwards, managing to look serious even with purple hair. "We will have to wait and see what happens in April when they decide if there will be a qualifying tournament. If we don't get in, it could be the death knell for Associate teams."

As special as Ireland's three results in 2007 were, this easily eclipses them. Zimbabwe were there for the taking, while Pakistan scripted their demise with shots of staggering stupidity. Bangladesh just couldn't cope with a fast and bouncy pitch in Barbados

The elitists' argument has as many legs as Long John Silver did. A cosy clique works for those within, but it alienates everyone else, and destroys their chances of development. Sri Lanka won just two of their first 15 World Cup matches. Had the ICC lost patience after they lost every game in 1987, there would have been no Cinderella story in 1996.

Of course, Sri Lanka had a thriving school system to produce talent, and fine coaches. The likes of Ireland and Netherlands don't, yet, and they never will if young kids are denied the chance to dream of being the next O'Brien or ten Doeschate on the world stage.

This was my 25th World Cup game, and half a dozen of them have featured Ireland. No one who was there will ever forget St Patrick's Day in 2007, "Cotton Eye Joe" blaring from the speakers and throats increasingly lubricated by Red Stripe, singing "The Fields of Athenry" and "Molly Malone". Those were "I- was there" moments I'll treasure all my life, and the World Cup would be immeasurably poorer without them.

Having watched Ireland play and also in training, and talked to the likes of Trent Johnston and Boyd Rankin, it's not hard to guess why they so consistently punch above their weight. If you could bottle the spirit within the camp, it would sell as well as Guinness or Bushmills. They're a tight unit, and take such joy in each other's successes. Against a team of prima donnas or those that feel success is their entitlement, they will always have a chance.

As special as the three results in 2007 were, this easily eclipses them. Zimbabwe were there for the taking, while Pakistan scripted their demise with shots of staggering stupidity. Bangladesh just couldn't cope with a fast and bouncy pitch in Barbados.

Here, England made 327. Against Bangladesh in Mirpur, Ireland had needed just 55 from 81 balls with five wickets in hand when O'Brien Junior was dismissed. They fell apart. Here, Alex Cusack was run out when 55 were required with just 51 balls remaining. This time, there was no disintegration.

The previous highest World Cup score by a "minnow" batting second was Sri Lanka's 276 for 4 in the inaugural World Cup. That day at The Oval, Australia had made one more than England did at the Chinnaswamy. When the Powerplay was taken, Ireland needed 161 from 114 balls. Associate teams just don't do that against full-strength opposition. Neither do batsmen who play in the Leinster League after county contracts have been terminated make 50-ball centuries on the biggest stage.

Till now. This is the wake-up call that cricket needs. Embrace, don't alienate. Nurture, don't destroy. Take the Ghanas out of the football and the Irelands out of the cricket, and what we're left with would be a much poorer spectacle.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dre on March 4, 2011, 23:27 GMT

    Great suggestions MEETY. The solution is much simpler than icc imply.

  • Peter on March 4, 2011, 6:29 GMT

    @ Meety - you're on fire! Quick query re 5...sounds grand on paper, but would you allow 'marquee' Test series exemptions from the division rankings system? My concern would be should Aus and England, for example, be in different divisions at a particular point in time, what happens at the Ashes? Also re 6, how would you see the 16 teams you propose qualifying? Do Test teams + Zim get automatic entry, or should they play in WC qualifiers along the same lines as the Associates currently do? Shouldn't there be a fair dinkum qualifying set up ala the FIFA WC?

  • Andrew on March 4, 2011, 3:58 GMT

    6. Do away with the T20 W/Cup. 7. Promote Champions League with the inclusion of minnows. Possibly 32 teams. 8. Lobby the Olympic committee to include cricket in T20 format, (this would replace the T20 W/Cup). I'd consider conditions, where by Test nations have to send a squad containing either uncapped players or U21s, maybe with 1 squad member who is experienced. Being the Olympics & time being of the essence I would say that a 64 team knock-out be the go. No round-robbin matches - you lose, you're out. I'd also pay myself a million dollars a week for the privilage of the ICC using my magnificent mind! Also I'd order surgery on Billy Bowdens finger so he can straighten it out, broker peace in the Middle-East, AND move the Ashes to their rightful home in OZ, AND sack Hilditch from the Board of Selectors!!!!

  • Andrew on March 4, 2011, 3:42 GMT

    (cont) - The McIntyre system more or less gives the possibility of a 2nd chance to a team beaten in the FIRST round of the finals. The top 8 MUST be ranked for this to work. The QTR Finals would be 1 v 8, 2 v 7 etc. The highest 2 ranked losers play the lowest ranked winners for the right to play the highest ranked winners in a semi final. 5. Tests would be split up into 3 groupings. Group A (highest 4 ranked sides), would compete home & away over FIVE test series. Group B (next 3 ranked sides), would play each other over 5 Test series, & play Group A teams over THREE tests @ home & TWO Tests away. GROUP C would include the bottom ranked Test nations (inc Ireland). They would play each other over 3 test series home & away. They would also play TWO Test series @ home & 1 Test away against GROUP B teams. I think thi would preserve the integrity of statistics & at the same time expand the game. Other nations like Kenya,Netherlands etc would play "un-official tests v GROUP C teams. (TBC)!!

  • Andrew on March 4, 2011, 3:23 GMT

    If the world revolved around me - this is what I would have the ICC do! 1. Turn all bi-lateral competitions into tri-series events including 1 Associate. This means that games involving associates could be played at grounds that not normally get international matches - eg Newcastle in Australia. 2. Give Ireland Test status in about 2 yrs, backed by resources to set up a domestic 1st class system, 3. Re-instate Zims Test status, (conditional on "clean" bookkeepping). 4. Hold a 16 team WORLD cup, with 4 groups of 4. The top 16 teams based on RANKINGS compete. The way the groupings would work is that Associates would get to play at LEAST one game against a side of comparable skill. EVERY match has context as r/rates, bonus points etc count for placings in the final 8 (top 2 sides from each pool). If a superpower fails to advance - tough! The final 8 would work under what in Oz is referred to the McIntyre system. (TBC!!!!!!!!!!)

  • Andrew on March 4, 2011, 3:00 GMT

    @ AndyZaltzmannsHair - very good question! The first question is easier to answer than the 2nd!!!!!! @WCdan59 - interesting thoughts re: PNG. I think they could be a lot better at cricket then people may thinnk, they have a very popular hybrid version of cricket they play up there, which may be no less effective than Pakistani Tape Ball??? @ElectronSmoke - I disagree re: Zimbabwe, they appear to have turned a corner, & WILL improve over time. One reason I hold that to be true, is the standard of fielding has improved, another reason is they have a 1st class competiton that is currently better than Bangladesh & on a par with NZ & WI. I don't think they are in terminal decline. Kenya has been one of the biggest dissapointments I have seen (beyond the test world). Most of that was/is political. I could see big advantages for Kenya & Zim if they merged their domestic competitions, (maybe include Namibia too). Africa has plenty of potential.

  • Jiten on March 4, 2011, 1:48 GMT

    @ Sailav, dude Rakesh Sharma is right. Ireland are far better than Bangladesh even though they lost to them in this WC. Bangladesh has been playing cricket for more than 10 years and yet to win a major series (including better countries like Ind, Srilanka, Pak, Aus, SA) and yet to reach the semis of any WC. Bangladesh is not like these associate nations who play cricket mostly in WC only. Bangla cricket team plays regular cricket throughout the year and still they're yet 2 make a mark. Even after 10 yrs of playing cricket, every victory of Bangladesh is called "HISTORIC" coz they're never expected to win against better teams coz they've never been considered a better team. All u guys scream about is you WC victory against India in 2007, grow up guys it's been 4 yrs now.

  • Dre on March 4, 2011, 1:46 GMT

    @Sailav. Dude, did u even read my post properly? I NEVER said Ire are better than Bang now. What is clear to see is that Ire now and even in 2007 are better than Bang was in 2000 when they got test status. It is also good to hope Bangladesh will do well in this tourney but I can't see them reaching the semis to be honest. Its good to be a fan of your team but a little realism is always needed. Also have some respect for W.I., when full strength (which they clearly aren't), they are indeed a better side than Bang. It is ironic how you get so passionate, misreading my post thinking that I said Ire are better than Bang but yet still want to quote a flawed ranking system which has Bang ranked above W.I. Bang can beat this under-strength W.I. in the subcontinent but a fully fit and firing W.I....I doubt they would beat them in a 5 match series.

  • Patrick on March 3, 2011, 23:06 GMT

    If the ICC go through with their plans to remove Associate Members from future World Cups it will be an absolute scandal and further proof that it is an organisation not fit for purpose. It would no longer be a real World Cup, just another drab, uninspiring collection of boring matches just like most ODIs are now anyway. If the World Cup is to be reduced to 10 teams let's have every country go through a qualification competition as happens in all other serious sports including rugby, tennis and soccer. Let's have Australia and New Zealand in a pre-qualifying group with Afghanistan and Namibia and England in a pre-qualifying group with Holland, Canada and the West Indies etc and no more automatic qualification except for the host country and the holders.

  • Deepanjan on March 3, 2011, 21:08 GMT

    And again - an article meant to buttress the support for associate teams ends up with fanatics going on and on about if 'prima donnas' hint was about India?? Whether India and Pakistan should be disallowed since they lost to associates? Whether Bangladesh is better than them and so forth. Get a life! it's far more serious - the Irish and the Dutch with sufficient exposure and facilities can mix it with the big boys. They deserve that chance, and they have earned it with their performance . It's already sad that once a fine couple of competitive teams - Zimbabwe and Kenya - are now on terminal decline due to non cricketing reasons. SL had a good structure, imagine what'd happen if Bangladesh was demoted when they were getting hammered by all until 2007?? or what would inspire Afghanistan to rise through 4 levels of associate competitions

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