For cricket's Associates, 2008 was something of a year in limbo. For the leading countries it was all about preparing for 2009 and the ICC World Cup Qualifiers; for those aspiring to break into the top six it was about scrambling high enough up the ladder to start sniping at the so-called bigger teams.
On the plus side the ICC, buoyed by a large increase in income resulting from its new media deal that kicks in on January 1, voted for a substantial increase in funding for Associates and Affiliates in 2009. For the elite of the second tier, this will be enough to allow them to contemplate a higher degree of professionalism and investment. Even for the Affiliates, the countries at the bottom of the pyramid, the rewards will be significant.
The ICC also expanded the World Cricket League from five to seven, and ultimately, nine divisions. This allowed most genuine cricket-playing countries to take part in meaningful competitions with the ultimate reward of qualification for World Cups. The success of Afghanistan, who started the year in Division Five and finished one tournament away from taking part in the ICC World Cup Qualifiers, proved that any team could go all the way.
The downside was that the ICC's executive also made it much harder for any of the Associates to join in at cricket's big events. It cut the number of non-Test-playing countries included in the World Cup from six to four. While there was much unhappiness among the leading Associates, the reality was that at the 2007 World Cup only Ireland proved able to compete with the Full Members.
The other flagship tournament for leading Associates, the first-class, four-day Intercontinental Cup, still failed to catch the imagination despite expansion and some more rule changes. Spread over a year and a half, it never built any momentum, and although Ireland retained their title the tournament was very much second fiddle to the one-day merry-go-round.
Overall it was swings and roundabouts. While cricket's governing body received more than its fair share of brickbats and appeared increasingly marginalised, it continued to do a tremendous job supporting and fostering the game beyond the Test world.
The occasional misguided and seemingly greed-based comments from its leadership about expansion into China did little to help, however, and the Full Member countries increasingly showed little desire to share their multi-million dollar incomes from major tournaments.
New kid on the block
Afghanistan provided international cricket with a much-needed good-news story in 2008. Against a backdrop of immense internal disruption, the Afghans turned the form book on its head by winning Division 5 of the ICC World Cricket League in Jersey, and then romped to the Division 4 title five months later. A top-two finish in Division 3 in January, and they will be fighting it out at April's qualifiers for a place in the next World Cup. Proof that, however far down the food chain you are, there is hope.
Even before they reached the 2003 World Cup semi-finals, Kenya were widely regarded as being the likely 11th country to be allowed to sit at Test cricket's top table. But since then little has gone right, with a dysfunctional board destroying many of the building blocks to the team's success, and even under new management since 2005 the side has at best trodden water for several years. In 2008 they suffered a wretched European tour, and missed out on qualification for the ICC World Twenty20. As things stand, they might struggle to reach the 2011 World Cup, and the dearth of new talent is a growing concern. Even Steve Tikolo can't go on forever.
In the space of a fortnight in the autumn, the Zimbabweans proved to be the whipping boy of the Associates. First Canada tied a Twenty20 international with them, then Uganda defeated them in a warm-up one-day international, and finally Kenya polished them off in a full ODI. Zimbabwe may be getting more funding than the top six Associates combined, but all the money in the world and all the bluster of the ICC hierarchy could not disguise the reality that several Associates were now better than a Full Member.
Fresh elections and a new constitution in the USA appeared to herald a new beginning for a potential giant ruined by a self-serving administration. But from the moment that Gladstone Dainty was re-elected as president - albeit with his power diminished after his closest cronies were sent packing - there was a feeling that nothing would change. And so it proved. It took Dainty eight months to hold an executive meeting, and by the year-end the ICC was again making noises about taking action. After two suspensions even the masters of appeasement in Dubai had had enough, and the talk was of the USA Cricket Association possibly facing expulsion.
What 2009 holds
With the massive jump in funding, on the surface the future has never been rosier. But unless the leading countries offer their support by offering to play the top Associates, and to host tours by them, albeit non first-class ones, all the money in the world won't allow them to bridge the gulf between Full Members and the rest.
Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa