A tussle for crumbs
History repeated itself in 2013 when the goalposts were moved on Associate and Affiliate teams aspiring to get an opportunity to play against the ICC's Full Member nations in global events. A "first round" was announced for the 2014 World Twenty20, which in essence is a second qualifier after the 16-team Associate tournament that was completed in November. Two guaranteed spots for Associates in the main portion of the World Twenty20 were removed and the top six finishers from November's qualifier must now defeat Bangladesh and Zimbabwe to have any chance of playing the top eight Full Members.
However, teams didn't let this rejigged format dampen their spirits too much at the World Twenty20 Qualifier. The thrill of qualifying for a World Cup is commonplace in football. Regardless of whether the team is former FIFA world champion France or one qualifying for the main draw in Brazil for the very first time like Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is a moment full of elation.
In the world of cricket though, that feeling is reserved exclusively for Associate and Affiliate teams. Marginalised though they may be, the achievement in gaining entry to the ICC's flagship events on merit puts them on cloud nine. "This is the biggest moment of our lives," Nepal captain Paras Khadka said after his team secured a spot at the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh next year with a last-ball win over Hong Kong. "Our childhood dreams have come true."
Nepal's win over Hong Kong was broadcast live around the world. A larger subset of Associate and Affiliate teams had more exposure than ever before in 2013. A greater commitment from the ICC to develop broadcast coverage for Associates meant that more than 40 games in the ICC World Cricket League Championship and World Twenty20 Qualifier were shown worldwide either on the internet or television. The added attention paved the way for new stars to be born in cricket's second-tier nations.
That does not include the exposure granted to Scotland and Netherlands for participating in the Yorkshire Bank 40 competition in England, something they will not be able to look forward to in 2014. Although Netherlands notched wins against Worcestershire and Warwickshire in their final campaign, Scotland went winless in the competition. In ICC tournaments, Scotland hoped to receive a boost with the infusion of some English county players, thanks to revised ICC eligibility guidelines. Matt Machan, David Murphy, Iain Wardlaw and Neil Carter all debuted for Scotland in March but had negligible impact on results and Scotland fell short of the top two in the WCL Championship and the top six in the World Twenty20 Qualifier.
Netherlands showed bad form in the Intercontinental Cup, finishing winless and in last place, but had solid results in the shorter formats at ICC events. They got the short end of the stick when poor drainage in King City, Ontario meant they had to split points with Canada in one of their WCL Championship fixtures, which arguably cost them second place and an automatic berth in the World Cup. They will be favourites to lock up one of the two spots still available at the 2015 World Cup when they go to the qualifier in New Zealand. They finished in second place in a difficult group at the World Twenty20 Qualifier and secured the last available spot in Bangladesh with a win in an elimination game over Scotland.
Canada and Kenya have been Associate torchbearers for more than a decade, but their flames were dimmed to a flicker in 2013 as the ambitions of other countries started burning brighter. Canada has appeared in the last three World Cups, but hopes of a fourth consecutive trip are in jeopardy after they finished dead last in the World Cricket League Championship. Despite the return of Ashish Bagai ahead of the World Twenty20 Qualifier (though he retired later in the year), a first-day loss to USA was a stomach punch they couldn't recover from and they fell short of the knockout stage. Upon the team's return home, Gus Logie was KO'd as coach and replaced on an interim basis by Andy Pick. Canada finished in second place at the 2009 World Cup Qualifier in South Africa, but they'll need many prayers answered for that to happen again in 2014. Their place in the ICC's High Performance Programme and the extra funding tied to it that allows players to be on contracts could disappear if they fail to have a good showing at the qualifier in New Zealand.
Kenya have appeared in five straight World Cups, the most appearances in the tournament by any Associate nation, but that streak is in serious danger of ending. They finished sixth out of eight teams in the World Cricket League Championship, culminating in a pair of drubbings at the hands of Afghanistan in October when they were bowled out for totals of 89 and 93. Desperate times called for desperate measures: Steve Tikolo and Thomas Odoyo made comebacks to the national team for the World Twenty20 Qualifier. Even though Tikolo was the only player in the tournament to finish in the top 15 for both runs and wickets, it wasn't enough to get Kenya into the playoff stage, let alone qualify. Like Canada, their High Performance Programme status is on life support.
One country eager to usurp that HPP tag from Canada and Kenya, plus the ODI recognition attached to it, is Nepal. With their backs to the wall in April after a pair of losses to open ICC World Cricket League Division Three in Bermuda, they ran off four consecutive victories to finish as the tournament champions, and clinched a berth in the 2014 World Cup Qualifier. They carried that momentum with them into the World Twenty20 Qualifier, where they finished in third place, behind only Ireland and Afghanistan. They have been consistently solid performers at Under-19 World Cups over the previous decade, and with Khadka at the helm, the core of those junior level successes has finally begun to make some noise at the senior level. They don't appear ready to pipe down anytime soon.
UAE had a quietly successful year. They finished a win away from an automatic 2015 World Cup berth, placing third in the WCL Championship. In their current form, they remain a threat to take one of the two remaining spots available at the World Cup Qualifier in New Zealand. Using home conditions to their advantage, they finished fourth in the World Twenty20 Qualifier to book a place in Bangladesh, their first appearance at a major ICC tournament since 1996.
Namibia took a step back on the field in 2013. They were negatively impacted by the absence of Gerrie Snyman, who has not been selected since January after a row with the Namibia board over his desire to play only in limited-overs fixtures and not first-class matches. They lost all six WCL Championship games without him in 2013 and finished second to last on the table. A win over Netherlands in the Intercontinental Cup in April was followed later in the year by two heavy losses to Afghanistan and UAE. After going undefeated in the group stage of the 2012 World Twenty20 Qualifier, they went 4-3 in the first round in 2013 before losing an elimination match to Papua New Guinea. The longer Snyman's exile lasts, the more likely it is that Namibia will continue to slide down the Associate ranks.
PNG narrowly missed out on a spot at the World Twenty20 in Bangladesh with Hong Kong snatching a berth at their expense. Both Hong Kong and PNG are teams loaded with young talent, though, and will be pushing hard to move up the 50-over rankings as well, in the World Cup Qualifier in New Zealand.
The signs were strong in 2013 that the Associates are doing their best to close the gap with the weakest Full Members, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. At the same time, that uphill battle got a little bit steeper with the news that the 2018 and 2022 World Cup Qualifiers will be held in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, providing the Full Members home-field advantage in a bid to keep Associates from encroaching on their territory in what are scheduled to be ten-team World Cups for 2019 and 2023. In addition to that, the World Twenty20 will go from a biennial event to once every four years starting in 2016. More Associates must start scoring wins over Full Members to show they are peers and not inferior, but the on-field opportunities to do so are dwindling, and by the next decade are in danger of vanishing altogether.