It's an Irish question and a global one
In their famous spoof version of British history, WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman describe Gladstone as having spent his twilight years trying to resolve "the Irish Question". Alas it is to no avail: "Unfortunately whenever he was getting warm, the Irish secretly changed the Question".
Something similar applies to cricket's Irish Question, which could be about any number of things. Is it about the size of the Cup? Is it about the length of the Cup? Is it about the venue of Cup? After all, India and Sri Lanka had no problem with a 14-team tournament. Why are Australia and New Zealand so ken to winnow the participants away to 10? Perhaps there's an argument for World Cups only being held on the subcontinent: it is, after all, where the crowds and the television audiences are.
Is it, on the other hand, about Zimbabwe, that ghost in flesh at the ICC executive board which somehow retains full voting rights and financial entitlements despite not playing Test cricket, and despite being considerably the inferior of Ireland at one-day cricket, and probably the Netherlands too. At the moment, the president of Zimbabwe Cricket cannot even visit Australia, such is his global reputation.
Or is it about Twenty20, given that the ICC is offering associate members participation in a bigger World Twenty20 as a sop for their exclusion from the World Cup? A positive of the dispute is that the associates have proven smarter than the full members gave them credit for: understanding that Twenty20 is most congenial to the mediocre, have refused to be infantilised. The irony is that part of Twenty20's appeal is its capacity for creating upsets, which might be felt to have offered associates a shorter cut to success. Kudos to the Irish and the Dutch for seeing past that, and insisting on the right to master a form of cricket that isn't just about keeping advertisements apart.
You might by now have worked out that my sympathies lie with the associates; actually, I find it difficult to believe that a cricket lover could feel any other way, given that it is other cricket lovers who sustain the game in its outstations, and that they deserve as much nurturing and encouragement as it is in the ICC's gift to give. All power to the popular outcry against Ireland's treatment. Credit even to ICC president Sharad Pawar for putting the matter back on the agenda - temporary credit anyway.
I fancy, too, that the World Cup needs associate members rather more than the ICC executive board has hitherto been prepared to acknowledge. Sri Lanka defeating India in 1979; Zimbabwe overcoming Australia in 1983, then England in 1992; Bangladesh routing Pakistan in 1999; Kenya rolling West Indies in 1996 and squeezing into the final four in 2003; Ireland stitching up Pakistan in 2007 and England in 2011: you will forget many World Cup deeds before you forget these. And as exciting as it is to see a six peal from the bat of Virender Sehwag, there is something even a little more thrilling about a similar blow from Hiral Patel.
To be fair, there is merit in the contention that a ten-team round-robin is the most efficient and fair preliminary stage for the World Cup. The management of the ICC originally brought forth a plan for 2015 under which the top eight countries would qualify automatically, and the next six (two full members and two associates) would play off for the last two places: it was the executive board, looking after its own, that insisted on automatic qualification of full members.
Four years out from the tournament, it does require some precognition to evaluate the future strength of the associate members: their talent pools are small, and susceptible to one-off setbacks and key retirements. Ireland and the Netherlands have handy teams now; by 2015 they might have gone the way of Kenya.
They are, however, surely likelier to develop more competitive national XIs if they have World Cup participation to aim for. And as an incentive for associate members of the ICC, whether in the matter of players, media or sponsors, nothing trumps a shot, however optimistic, at the international one-day crown. The Cup structure surely exists to serve cricket, rather than the other way round.
The playoff, too, might have less to recommend it than seems. Because the difference between entitlement and non-entitlement to a World Cup distribution amounts to tens of millions of dollars, participants in such a competition would be competing for the equivalent of Allen Stanford moolah, introducing budget uncertainty to already precarious finances. When all is said and done, the most equitable solution still appears a 12-team cup. Perhaps 14 competitors was too many; 10, however, feels like too few.
The Irish Question is an interesting one to have to consider at all, because it seems to imply a new stage in the diffusion of cricket round the world. Consider how cricket internationalised in the first, second and third places.
For almost the first half century after the commencement of the cricket rivalry between England and Australia, the only addition to full-scale competition was South Africa, and then on rather fluctuating terms: Australia toured there desultorily twice; teams sent from England were barely representative.
In May then September 1926, nonetheless, the Marylebone Cricket Club hosted Imperial Cricket Conferences at Lord's, at which not only Australia and South Africa were represented but India, New Zealand and West Indies, these last three all indicating a desire to bring teams to England.
New Zealand had had a board of control for about three decades, but the West Indies' board had barely formed, and India's would not be established until the end of 1928. Despite this, agreements were reached for the interchange of visits and, at the second meeting, a definition of Test matches arrived at: "Matches played between sides selected by recognised governing bodies of cricket representing countries within the Empire". England duly played their first Tests against West Indies (1928), New Zealand (1931) and India (1932), while West Indies paid their first visit to Australia and New Zealand (1930-31).
This was a most remarkable climacteric; in hindsight, it was from these conferences that international cricket really sprang, doubling the number of participants, rather than from those in 1909 whose centenary the ICC marked two years ago. For an organisation as formal and ceremonial as Marylebone, it now seems deliciously ad hoc, reminiscent of the historian Sir John Seeley's remark that the British acquired their empire "in a fit of absent-mindedness".
The idea of a junior tier of involvement then dates from July 1965, when the Imperial Cricket Conference changed its name to the International Cricket Conference, and its rules so as to accommodate members from outside the Commonwealth. Ceylon, Fiji and the United States became the first "associate members", their ranks swelled further the following year by Bermuda, Denmark, East Africa and the Netherlands.
In 1971, augmented by Argentina, Bermuda, Canada, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Israel, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Singapore, associate members received voting rights. Four years later, for no screamingly obvious reason, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) and East Africa were invited to put the "world" in World Cup when the first event was staged in England; only the 1992 World Cup, also an ANZAC enterprise, has gone without associate member involvement since.
The third phase of globalisation commenced as an Indian initiative, with the presidency of Jagmohan Dalmiya at the ICC. Casting envious eyes on the "world game" that soccer had become, he exhibited a missionary zeal for expanding cricket's horizons. If his modus operandi sometimes looked he was throwing darts at a map of the world, he provided cricket with its first specific development bankroll: the inaugural ICC Knockout in 1998 was staged expressly to endow the council's development programme. And with the revolution in cricket's finances over which Dalmiya presided, the ICC could finally afford to make associate membership mean something financially, and affiliate membership too. Numbers of affiliate members grew from six then to 60 today.
On elite cricket, however, this process left negligible trace. It remains true that while no former British colony has won soccer's World Cup, only former British colonies have won cricket's. Boards of control consented to development not because they saw it is a priority but because it seemed like A Good Idea, and perhaps also because they sounded so weighty when they said things like: "Of course, we're looking at China." In particular, they exhibited negligible interest in scheduling fixtures with associates, their attitude being that by signing off on ICC development budgets they had, as it were, "given at the office".
The ICC's development strategy has changed in the last few years, from a horizontal model, spreading cricket to as many countries as it could conveniently colour in on the glove, to a vertical one, investing most heavily where results are most promising. Fearless, feisty Ireland is a success story - or at least it was.
What's also changed in the last five years, ironically, is India itself. A decade ago, globalisation was explained as a long-term strategy to enhance cricket's cultural and eventually its commercial potential. Today, long-term thinking is so 20th century: it's far more satisfying and filling to gorge on the low-hanging fruit in the Indian orchard.
This has, one suspects, had a subtly negative impact on cricket's interest in new frontiers. It's a corporate logic: the core product is ticking over nicely; why bother with research and development? It's also an organisational outcome: each member of the ICC executive board represents a national board of control; what do any of them gain from spreading cricket's reach as opposed to increasing their own share of the growing spoils? Especially when, India's aside, boards worldwide are strapped for cash right now.
Cricket's Irish Question, then, is inseparable from this hinge point in the game's development, and is a test of its administration's good faith. That being so, it is hard to feel confident. A shrewd Australian prime minister - not that one, but the one before him - once said: "Always back self-interest. At least you know it's trying." Here, however, that will turn this Irish Question into an Irish Joke.
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer