Cash and commitment cause for concern
It was a busy year for the second tier of world cricket, hardly a month going by without a tournament or tour somewhere. It was, however, a year where the volume of cricket played, a thorny subject among the top countries, became an equally contentious one among the leading Associates.
The two high-profile events - the World Cup and the ICC World Twenty20 - hardly showed the top Associates in their best light. Ireland were the exception that proved the rule and their progress to the Super Eights gave an often turgid tournament a romantic story. But the other five were never at the races and Bermuda, by some distance the worst of the six, turned in performances that verged on the embarrassing and only served give ammunition to those who questioned the right of such sides to even participate. Later in the year, rain meant Scotland hardly had a chance to show their mettle at the ICC World Twenty20, while Kenya, supposedly the No. 1 Associate, were dreadful.
Those two tournaments highlighted the gulf between the Full Members and the rest, both in terms of playing and finances. Ireland received well under $1 million from the World Cup despite reaching the last eight, and yet Zimbabwe, knocked out in the first round, "earned" $11 million. Given the gaping disparity in funding despite similar obligations, it makes Ireland's performance to tie against the Zimbabweans even more remarkable.
Cash remained a major issue. The ICC annual allowance and high-performance grants ensured a healthy platform, but in several countries with high costs of living it was not enough to fund the game with ever-increasing commitments. Plans for semi-professionalism flagged early in the year in Scotland and Ireland were soon put on hold. Only in Kenya were players put on full-time professional contracts, but even that was dependent on a TV-rights deal. Elsewhere, global saturation of match coverage meant that the value to TV companies of games between Associates and Full Members - even when the Full Member was the cash cow that is India - was minimal.
More worrying was the increasing numbers of players who either opted or were forced by work or family commitments to turn their backs on representing their countries. The increasing demands on time posed by tournaments such as the World Cricket League and Intercontinental Cup meant that players started to say enough and be more choosy about which matches to take part in. A further problem was that others chose to play for English counties, who were after all their paymasters, rather than countries - to the undisguised anger of a vocal minority who lambasted them without considering the players had bills to worry about aside from the glory of representing their nation.
Finding a balance will be one of the ICC's major headaches in the coming year. It has done a great job in upping the profile of the Associates and establishing competitions that challenge them and help them improve, but it is almost a victim of its own success.
The Intercontinental Cup final at Leicester in May underlined the problem. Canada's players could not afford time off to allow them to prepare and many arrived in England without any meaningful practice. Against a well-drilled Ireland side they were routed in five sessions. The revised 2007-08 tournament, played over two years with the top eight Associates all playing each other, also suffered.
The World Cricket League, which launched in Nairobi in February and provided a promotion and relegation structure with the ultimate goal of appearing at the World Cup in 2011, was a welcome addition to the calendar, and regional competitions continued to thrive.
New man on the block
The countries who looked to be the ones to threaten the existing top six ahead of the 2009 World Cup Qualifier are UAE and Oman, although Namibia are also there or thereabouts. Denmark enjoyed a good tour of Kenya, while Uganda bloodied the noses of Kenya and Bermuda and won many plaudits but failed to make inroads where it mattered. The U-19 World Cup in February-March may provide an interesting indicator as to the future.
Bermuda are in virtual freefall and so multitudinous are their problems that it is hard to see how they can turn things around and be genuine competitors by the time of the 2009 World Cup Qualifier. Unless they finish in the top six there, they will lose their one-day status and be looking at the 2011 World Cup from the outside. At the moment they are probably not in the top ten Associates.
Ireland's World Cup victory over Pakistan was undoubtedly the moment that gave Associate cricket the biggest fillip, a stinging response to those who moaned that the lesser nations should not even have been allowed to sully what was supposed to be an exclusive party for the big boys. And although outclassed in the Super Eights, the Irish supporters brought a desperately needed sense of enjoyment to a soulless tournament.
The ongoing shambles inside the USA ensured that again a country with more than 10 million expat Asians, many of who follow the game religiously, had no representative cricket for the national side to follow and no overseas matches involving Asian sides to watch. The will is there to bring the major countries to play in New York, Florida and California, but with pathetic and self-interested infighting destroying the USA Cricket Association, most people opted to stay away. The ICC appointed an independent third party, Chris Dehring, to try to bang heads together, but it remains to be seen if even he can sort things out.
The Asian Under-15 tournament in Nepal should have been a chance for the future players from the Associates to shine. However, eight of the ten sides were thrown out when it emerged that between three and eight players in each team were too old, leaving Singapore and Kuwait to contest the final as the only two sides remaining.
Wish for 2008
The system whereby all Associates and Affiliates get a set flat amount from the ICC has to be revised, but that has as much chance of happening as turkeys voting for Christmas. That Germany and Gibraltar receive the same funding as Kenya and Netherlands is crazy given their respective standings in the game. Other grants help alleviate the anomaly, but money is being poured into areas where there is no genuine development.
What does 2008 hold?
A tough year in prospect, more so for the bigger countries, who will continue to have to search for a balance between more matches and amateur players while battling to pay escalating bills. There is hope on the horizon: in 2009 the money from the new ICC media deal will start pouring in and that will mean considerably more money for the Associates.
Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo