Increased squad depth crucial for Associates' success
The 2015 World Cup is less than seven months away, but Afghanistan's drawn four-match ODI series with Zimbabwe will go a long way towards filling the build-up with positive anticipation that Associate teams will not be content just to show up and collect medals for participation. Like Ireland, Scotland and UAE, who will be there representing the Associate cause along with them, Afghanistan are desperate to prove they belong with the big boys of the Test world, and this week's results have demonstrated emphatically that they merit inclusion not just for the 2015 World Cup but for ICC events beyond.
In years past, the premier Associates like Canada and Kenya were able to come up with once-in-a-generation match-winners like John Davison or Steve Tikolo to serve as the backbone of their squad. The inability to develop a supporting cast to bridge the gap into the next generation of talent has been exposed, with both countries falling back into mediocrity.
The ability to generate squad depth is perhaps the most significant hurdle for any Associate squad. When a star player is struck down by injury or suffers a loss of form, Associate teams do not have the luxuries of like-for-like replacements, which can reasonably be expected of Full Member structures. The 2012 World T20 champions, West Indies, were able to advance to the 2014 semi-finals without the services of Kieron Pollard, and a possible return to the final was thwarted by rain in their showdown with Sri Lanka.
Sabermetrics analysts in American sports have identified and attached a value to players beyond traditional stats by formulating the WAR or WARP category, short for Wins Above Replacement Player. The stat measures a star player's total impact over the course of a season by attributing a number of wins that a player's team would theoretically lose if he was replaced by an average player. In baseball in 2013, reigning American League MVP Miguel Cabrera had a WAR rating of 7.5 for the Detroit Tigers, who won their division with a 93-69 record. If you subtract Cabrera and the seven wins he represents, the Tigers would have finished 86-76, six games behind the Cleveland Indians for the division title and five games behind the Texas Rangers for the final wildcard playoff spot. Similarly, National League MVP Andrew McCutcheon of the Pittsburgh Pirates had a WAR rating of 7.9 on a team that won a wildcard playoff berth in 2013 with a record of 94-68. If McCutcheon disappeared from the team, the Pirates were projected to finish 86-76 on the season, tied with Washington Nationals for the final playoff spot instead of clinching it outright.
Cricket, though it has a rich statistical history, has yet to formulate its own version of WAR, but a theoretically crude interpretation of WAR is more acutely applicable at Associate level when players are missing. Prior to the World T20, Ireland went on a tour of the Caribbean where they played in the Nagico Super50 domestic tournament. Ed Joyce was rested and Paul Stirling, a player with multiple ODI centuries against Pakistan to his name, was injured in training before the first match. Reliable allrounder John Mooney also went home after the first match against Guyana with a stress-related illness.
Ireland struggled badly without Stirling in the first two games, losing by 114 runs to Guyana and by six wickets to Jamaica, who chased 162 with 21 overs to spare. Upon Stirling's return for the third match, Ireland defeated Windward Islands by 64 runs. His impact was evident in a number of ways: he may have only scored 11, but by being reinserted into the opening role, Stirling allowed Niall O'Brien to move down to No. 3 and provide a buffer for the middle order. O'Brien top-scored on the day with 44.
In addition to being one of Ireland's better fielders and someone who can save runs inside the circle, Stirling also provided an enhanced spin option, returning figures of 7-2-13-1. His presence arguably influenced the success of lead spinner George Dockrell. In two matches without Stirling, Dockrell returned combined figures of 0 for 64 in ten overs. With Stirling applying pressure from the opposite end, Dockrell had figures of 7-1-14-3 in the win over Windward Islands. Also worth mentioning are the two run-outs that occurred from pressure built off each other's restrictive bowling as Windward Islands collapsed for 115 in 35 overs.
Six days after the win over Windward Islands, Ireland notched a three-wicket win in a T20 tour match against Trinidad & Tobago A, where Stirling scored 70 off 38 balls. Replace Ireland's best batsman with the eighth-best batsman, the next cab off the rank, and more than likely Ireland lose, as they did to Guyana and Jamaica. Extending this argument, Joyce returned to the squad for the two T20Is and lone ODI against West Indies, enhancing the team's strength and depth. Ireland won the first T20 by six wickets, with Man-of-the-Match Joyce scoring 40 not out, before narrowly losing the second T20 by 11 runs on a difficult batting pitch.
Just three weeks earlier a team without Stirling and Joyce was losing heavily to regional teams, but with them they were capable of knocking over a West Indies side that included Dwayne Smith, Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Sunil Narine and Darren Sammy. Ireland's overall depth is very strong, and it's hard to find a weak link in a starting XI that includes Kevin O'Brien, William Porterfield and other county pros like Tim Murtagh and Gary Wilson. However, Stirling's WAR rating would arguably turn up higher because of the overall impact he has on the squad with his batting, bowling and fielding.
The impact felt by the presence, or lack thereof, of star players applies to several other current Associate teams. Nepal star Paras Khadka was laid low by a back injury at the ICC World Cup Qualifier in New Zealand. He missed one game and struggled through the rest of the tournament as Nepal lost all four of their group matches to Scotland, Hong Kong, UAE and Canada. Fast forward to the World T20 in Bangladesh and a healthy Khadka inspired the team to wins over Hong Kong and Afghanistan, not to mention turning in a top score of 41 in a losing effort against Bangladesh.
Netherlands have also experienced this to varying degrees in recent times. Without Tom Cooper, they finished seventh at the World Cup Qualifier and lost ODI status. With Cooper, at the World T20 they produced a record chase against Ireland to advance into the main draw. It was not just Cooper striking 45 off 15 balls that aided them. His overall presence gave freedom to Stephan Myburgh to swing away at the top of the order without any fear of two out turning into all out in the space of a few overs.
Although Netherlands subsequently suffered a humiliating defeat to Sri Lanka when they were bowled out for 39, history will show by the end of the tournament how special Sri Lanka were when they were eventually crowned T20 world champions. Sri Lanka's run to the title included another famous bowling display when they knocked over New Zealand for just 60. On that same day, Netherlands beat England by 45 runs. So a team that finished behind Namibia a few months earlier without Cooper was now beating Ireland and England with him.
The ability to develop squad depth is the biggest obstacle to overcoming the profound impact of losing a player with a high WAR rating. Afghanistan's pair of ODI victories in Zimbabwe signals that they have begun producing more players who can fill the void when big names aren't in the starting XI. Among those absentees are Hamid Hassan and Mohammad Shahzad, although at this point Afghanistan should no longer entertain "what ifs" about Hassan due to his chronic ailments.
Shahzad's absence was not felt as badly as might have been feared due to this improved depth. Four players - Samiullah Shenwari, Mohammad Nabi, Javed Ahmadi and Shafiqullah - produced half-centuries for Afghanistan during the ODI series, while 17-year-old Usman Ghani scored Afghanistan's first ODI century against a Full Member. In their victory over Bangladesh in the Asia Cup, Afghanistan also got an important half-century from Asghar Stanikzai. The run-scoring load is being shared.
On the bowling side, Afghanistan have now shown that Hassan's presence should be considered a bonus instead of a prerequisite for victory. An attack spearheaded by the 135kph-plus pace of Shapoor Zadran, Dawlat Zadran and Aftab Alam was capable of slaying Zimbabwe not once but twice. Add in the spin of Nabi, Shenwari, and the emerging Sharafuddin Ashraf and it becomes hard to find a weak link in their attack. Hassan's WAR rating would arguably be lower because the drop-off between Hassan and Alam is not as severe as the replacements offered by the absences of the likes of Stirling, Khadka and Cooper.
The major drawback for any Associate playing in the World Cup is their lack of exposure to Full Member opportunities. Ireland are currently in the midst of hosting Sri Lanka A, while Scotland will host New Zealand A for three games in August. Ireland and Scotland then square off for three ODIs at Malahide in September, with nothing else before the start of the World Cup. Meanwhile UAE have been totally starved of fixtures since the end of the Asian Cricket Council Premier League on May 7. Due to a lack of competitive preparation, they will have the biggest mountain to climb in order to be ready for their first match of the World Cup in New Zealand on February 19 against Zimbabwe.
The competitive standard of Associate cricket has perhaps never been stronger. Two teams that do not hold ODI status - Netherlands and Nepal - registered headline-grabbing victories at the World T20 over England and Afghanistan respectively. Hong Kong also managed to humble Bangladesh with a two-wicket win at the same event. Ireland's World Cup giant-killing exploits have continued in the form of more wins against Full Members - West Indies and Zimbabwe - in 2014.
Afghanistan's 100-run victory over Zimbabwe on July 24 showed that their dramatic two-wicket win two days earlier was no fluke and piles on more evidence that not just Afghanistan but many other Associates deserve increased opportunities against Full Members. They'll just have to wait until February in Australia and New Zealand to remind administrators of it.
Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna