Two up, four down
IrelandIreland may continue to leak their best players to England, but out of all the Associate nations they seem the most organised, and 2008 proved to be a promising year all round. However, like Scotland, their involvement in the Friends Provident Trophy has been a learning curve and not much more, though the two sides' inclusion in a major domestic tournament causes green-eyed envy from the likes of Kenya, who are virtually ignored by their nearest neighbours South Africa.
Ireland's greatest achievement was their third successive victory in the ICC Intercontinental Cup, the biggest event in Associate cricket. As Kenya's coach, Andy Kirsten, told Cricinfo in August, "It's the closest to a Test match they'll get" - albeit without the intensity. Nevertheless, Ireland have shown promise in all areas.
With several players unavailable, such as Niall O'Brien, who has county commitments, the coach, Phil Simmons, was forced to pick young and cruelly inexperienced players such as Paul Stirling. He inevitably struggled, but the fact he has already played 19 matches for his country suggests Simmons and Ireland aren't afraid to tip young players into the deep end. However, they will continue to miss the class of O'Brien and other county-contracted players as they look to qualify for the 2011 World Cup next year.
ScotlandThe end-of-year news that three Scotland players were turning professional lent seasonal cheer to Scottish cricket, and 2008 was a mixed year north of the border. It began well, though.
A tense two-run win over Lancashire in the Friends Provident Trophy in May demonstrated their determination to succeed in a professional tournament of quality teams and players.
They cruised past the two worst Associates, Bermuda and Canada, with ease thanks to the growing development of their slow-left-armer, Ross Lyons. They finished a respectable fourth in the Intercontinental Cup and only trailed Kenya - apparently the leading Associate, though their crown is fast slipping - by 14 points.
The highlight of the season ought to have been their match against England at The Grange. And it was, briefly - particularly for Gavin Hamilton who cracked 60 - until Scottish drizzle deemed it a dribbly draw. It was the sixth ODI out of ten held in Scotland to be a no-result. No amount of funding can fix the weather up north, but pleasingly Scotland's prospects are far brighter.
BermudaA miserable and depressing year for Bermudan cricket. Allegations of drug use, syringes found in players' dressing rooms and poor behaviour helped to tarnish an equally poor year in terms of results. They finished bottom of the Intercontinental Cup table with 26 points, behind the UAE and Canada. Their developmental side even lost to Argentina, one of the next generation of Affiliates hoping to make the next step up to Associate level. Given Bermuda's experience, victory in the World Cricket League Americas tournament should have been secured comfortably, but they lost that too. Domestically, their season ended in a complete shambles when some teams (and even umpires) failed or forgot to turn up.
They are grouped with Kenya, Netherlands, UAE, Denmark and one other in next year's ICC World Cup Qualifier, and for all the optimism of Gus Logie, their coach, it is very difficult to see how 2009 will be much different. Their women's side fared similarly poorly, reaching a comedic nadir when they were dismissed for just 13.
KenyaThe past year has not been easy for Kenya. They won just a single ODI, against Zimbabwe - a fine win, but once again it was Steve Tikolo who brought them victory, cracking a superb 102. Aside from that, they lost to Netherlands, Ireland (twice), and suffered two other heavy defeats to South Africa to cap a disappointingly poor year. So disappointing, in fact, that in November, Cricket Kenya launched an investigation into the decline in form and the management structure in an attempt to reverse their fortunes.
In September, a virtually full-strength side was humiliated by a Pakistan XI in Mombasa, a match that followed Kenya's dismal tour of Europe. The northern hemisphere's traditionally soggy summer didn't help, of course, but the results were consistently poor. In addition to being beaten by a club side, there were allegations by an opposition team of dissent and poor behaviour, and Kenya then failed to qualify for the 2009 World Twenty20 when Ireland rolled them for an abject 67 in Belfast.
Whatever could go wrong did go wrong; even the former KCA Chairman, Sharad Ghai, offered his two pennies with a predictably vitriolic attack on the domestic structure, though his comments were laced with bitterness, since he was ousted in 2005.
The one bright spot came with the appearance of Seren Waters, a prodigiously talented batsman who made 41 on his debut, followed by 74 in a full ODI against South Africa. It seems inconceivable, however, that he won't pledge his future to England; Surrey have already offered him an "emerging players" contract.
CanadaA mixed bag of a year, where little or no progress was made on the pitch but bigger strides were made administratively. The board signed a huge deal with Scotiabank, sponsoring men and women players alike over three years. An encouraging sign for the future, particularly with Canada's keenness to professionalise their administrative set-up - if not yet their cricketers, though that could happen sooner rather than later. Furthermore, cricket became officially recognised by the government, and over the next few years the sport ought to receive a slice of public funding, though like in many Associate nations, the game remains a minority-interest, and particularly in Canada's case, is played mostly by first and second-generation immigrants.
On the field, the T20 Canada tournament was mostly a logistical success - bar the odd missing visa or two - but Canada were far and away the weakest, finishing bottom. Even Zimbabwe managed to thrash them, as befits their - understandably questionable - status as a Full Member, leaving Canada with more questions than answers. Still, they signed a five-year deal to host similar events in the future, and only time will tell whether they can begin to challenge their own before taking on the heavies. Foundations are being made behind the scenes and, for now, that is a positive step forward.
NetherlandsOf all the Associates, Netherlands are the ones most likely to be looking over their shoulder at the progress being made by the likes of Namibia and Afghanistan. Results have been poor for some time, but crucially, this year the board came under increasing pressure with a steady decline of players, which Andre van Troost, their former bowler-turned-chief executive, must tackle first.
The lack of interest in cricket in the country is a serious concern for their status as an Associate, and having finished fifth in the ICC Intercontinental Cup - some 34 points behind fourth-placed Scotland - van Troost and his board have a lot of ground to make up. Compared to Ireland and Scotland, Netherlands simply don't play enough games against quality opposition. Britain's Associates are keenly involved in one-day county cricket, for example, and there would be little expectation that Netherlands could challenge even a second-division county side. With the World Cup Qualifiers taking place in just six months' time, Dutch cricket has an awful lot to do to catch the others.
Will Luke is a staff writer at Cricinfo