Future uncertain but it's not all dark

In 2015, Ireland pressed their claim to be included at cricket's top table AFP

On November 21, grief overcame the Associate world. Raymond van Schoor, 25, but already Namibia's most-capped player, died of a stroke sustained in a game for his country in South African domestic cricket, passing away just days before the anniversary of Phillip Hughes' death. It was an unwelcome reminder of the inherent dangers of playing cricket, and a tragic end to a year that had been marked by unprecedented interest in the Associate cause.

The 2015 World Cup was a seminal event for Associate cricket. With the 2019 and 2023 World Cups reduced to 10 teams, Associates approached their six weeks in Australia and New Zealand as their last, best chance to make the cricketing fraternity pay heed to their plight.

Once more, Ireland were flag-bearers for the Associate cause. En route to the World Cup, their senior players hatched a plan to use every opportunity to highlight the inequities in the running of the international game. No Irish press conference was complete without reference to the derisory nine ODIs Ireland played against Test opposition between the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, Ireland's paucity of funding compared to the weakest Full Members, and the contraction in the World Cup.

And the cricketing world listened. Ireland's victory over West Indies was crucial: not merely for how clinically they chased 305 to win, or how few were surprised by their triumph, but because it paved the way for a heady month in which the Associates were the story of the World Cup. By the time Ireland's defeat to Pakistan a month later denied them a quarter-final berth, they had added a pulsating victory over Zimbabwe. They batted with an élan befitting the modern ODI game, though their many medium-pace bowlers were brutally exposed.

Given their World Cup pedigree, Ireland's success was little surprise. Perhaps more significant were the improvements made by the other three Associates, compared with the 2011 World Cup: vindication for the ICC Development Programme. When Shapoor Zadran flicked a delivery to the leg side, removed his helmet and slumped to his knees in joy as Afghanistan secured their maiden World Cup win, it produced one of the tournament's most enduring images. Though they were hampered by their batting's penchant for self-destruction, Afghanistan's fast bowlers were often intoxicating. Scotland performed respectably, with Kyle Coetzer bludgeoning 156 against Bangladesh; that game aside, their batting, notionally their strength, was underwhelming. Though the UAE, the only amateur side in the World Cup, flagged after narrow defeats to Zimbabwe and Ireland, 311 silky runs from Shaiman Anwar ensured they avoided the "annihilation" that ICC chief executive David Richardson said he feared.

"Hong Kong got a new ODI ground approved, saw Ming Li, a Chinese legspinner, join Sydney Sixers as a rookie player, and gained consistency on the pitch"

Another important milestone for Associate cricket arrived during the World T20 Qualifiers in Ireland and Scotland in July. To Tim Anderson, the ICC's Head of Global Development, the tournament was "a breakthrough event in terms of audience levels and fan engagement." Twenty games were shown on Star Sports, while the ICC's event website received twice as many unique users as for the 2014 World T20.

"There is a stronger appreciation from 'mainstream' cricket fans of the high quality of cricket that is now played at this level," Anderson says. The hope was that such interest would convince the ICC board that investing in the globalisation of the game could ultimately result in Test nations becoming richer. Associates also considered banding together to schedule regular T20 tournaments, along the lines of the rugby sevens circuit, envisaging that sponsorship would give them more money to invest in development.

The World T20 Qualifiers also highlighted that Afghanistan and Ireland are no longer as dominant in the Associate world as they used to be. Neither side made the final, in which Scotland and Netherlands both bristled with intent with the bat.

The most enchanting tale was that of Oman, who belied their status in World Cricket League Division Five to seal one of the six berths in the first stage of the 2016 World T20 in India. It was a testament to the virtues of preparation - Oman adjusted to life playing in temperatures closer to 15 degrees than 50 with a three-week training camp in Cork prior to the tournament - and the increasing depth in Associate cricket.

Hong Kong's tournament was a microcosm of the unpredictability to be found in the Associate game. Alongside losses to Jersey and the United States, they toppled Ireland and then chased 162 to beat Afghanistan and secure their passage to India.

It was one of many highlights for Hong Kong in 2015. They got a new ODI ground approved, saw Ming Li, a Chinese legspinner, join Sydney Sixers as a rookie player, gained consistency on the pitch, and enjoyed the ascent of Mark Chapman. Marrying finesse and power at the crease, the 21-year-old debuted for Auckland soon after becoming the second youngest player to make an ODI hundred, against the UAE.

That Hong Kong crushed the UAE in their Intercontinental Cup match and two World Cricket League games in November merely emphasised the fluidity of Associate cricket. Months after the World Cup, the UAE finished 13th in the World T20 Qualifiers, floundering without their totems Khurram Khan and Mohammad Tauqir, who both retired in 2015.

All the welcome exposure gained during the World Cup and World T20 Qualifiers could not detract from the uncertainties facing Associate nations. Despite previous assurances, it was telling that revising the planned contraction of the World Cup was not even formally discussed at subsequent ICC board meetings. The will of the Big Three seemed all the more myopic in a year in which rugby union, a sport with a similar colonial footprint to cricket, considered expanding the size of future World Cups from 20 to 24 sides.

Funding was an equally big gripe. The funding increase from between the 2007-2015 period and 2015- 2023 represents an increase of only about $10 million in real terms, and sources believe that a sizeable number of Associates and Affiliates could be worse off. It also emerged that World Cricket League Division Six was being scrapped, continuing a trend of cost-cutting in ICC tournaments, after Division Seven and Eight were abolished in 2014.

In this environment, it is critical for Associates to find novel ways to gain exposure and develop more sources of non-ICC income. Encouragement was provided by the moves for cricket to return to the Commonwealth Games from the 2022 event in Durban.

"Afghanistan and Ireland gained significant extra funding and there were some encouraging signs of them enjoying more fixtures against Full Members."

If this was welcome, far more significant was whether cricket would return to the Olympic Games. After the intransigence of Giles Clarke, Colin Graves' public declaration that the ECB would now support cricket joining the Games provided hope that it would be included in 2024. Many millions in government funding - effectively free money for the ICC - would be unlocked if discussions between the ICC and International Olympic Committee came to fruition.

In 2015, the ICC made renewed efforts to develop the sport in China and the US. In China the women's game is regarded as the vehicle by which cricket can grow, with the ICC buoyed by the Chinese women's side defeating Netherlands and Thailand in the Women's World T20 Qualifiers in December.

In America the challenge is more about establishing reasonable governance and bringing order to the chaos of the country's cricket. To this end, the ICC suspended USACA and effectively took temporary control of the running of US cricket. It organised an ICC Americas Combine to determine a squad, comprising nine US players and six Canadians, to take part in the domestic one-day tournament in the West Indies in January.

While the ICC paid renewed interest to the possibilities in America and China, Afghanistan and Ireland were the beneficiaries of a structural change in international cricket in 2015. Both were taken out of the World Cricket League and placed in a new 12-team ODI structure. In and of itself, this meant nothing, as the ICC has no power to compel Full Members to play Associates. However, both Afghanistan and Ireland gained significant extra funding compared to teams in the World Cricket League Championship - and there were some encouraging signs of them enjoying more fixtures against Full Members.

In October, Afghanistan, now coached by Inzamam ul-Haq after Andy Moles' contract was not renewed, made history by becoming the first Associate nation to beat a Full Member in a series when they defeated Zimbabwe 3-2 in their ODI series and 2-0 in the T20s. It boded well for the future that their Under-19s later routed Zimbabwe U-19s 3-0.

In Mohammad Shahzad, who recovered from being dropped for the World Cup on the grounds of being overweight, Afghanistan benefited from the best individual comeback in Associate cricket in 2015: by the end of the year, Shazhad was once more infuriating opening bowlers with his helicopter shot and impudence.

Even more significant was a deal with the BCCI to establish a new home ground for Afghanistan outside Delhi. Another welcome sign of the BCCI becoming more engaged in developing cricket in the region was that plans to wind down the Asian Cricket Council were not followed through. In December, the organisation set up its first ever Centre of Excellence in Dharamsala.

For Ireland, their wins in the World Cup could not disguise concerns that the side remained overdependent upon veterans like Ed Joyce, Niall O'Brien and Tim Murtagh. Especially after the retirements of Alex Cusack and John Mooney, a new generation - men like Andy Balbirnie, Paul Stirling, George Dockrell and Craig Young - needed to convert potential into consistent performance under John Bracewell, who succeeded Phil Simmons as coach. There was some encouraging news about more fixtures in 2016 and beyond, with two-match series planned against Pakistan and Sri Lanka next summer.

Yet, despite the Associate pot being directed more heavily towards Afghanistan and Ireland, who now stand to receive around $3 million a year from the ICC, the two still face receiving $50 million less than Zimbabwe over the 2015-23 cycle, although there was talk of an ODI fund being introduced in 2016. One upshot of this funding discrepancy was that Ireland had to backtrack from planned extra ODIs because they could not afford to play them. Ireland were also concerned about cuts to ICC Europe: the European U-15s tournament was abolished after a reduction in funding received from the ICC in Dubai.

Meanwhile other Associates, despite seeming to have closed the gap on Afghanistan and Ireland, felt even more ostracised by the elite. Since gaining ODI status for until 2018 in February 2014, Scotland, the UAE, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea have each played a total of one bilateral ODI against a Full Member. Malcolm Cannon, chief executive of Cricket Scotland, spoke for many when he said: "We've still got ODI status, we worked bloody hard to get it and bloody hard to retain it. At the moment it's worth nothing. If it has no value, what was the point in trying to get it?"

"While the ICC's Development Programme continued to do laudable work, the divide between the bottom Full Members and top Associates in funding and fixtures remained a roadblock to the ICC's stated ambition of making cricket the "world's favourite sport"

In this context, England's failure to make their one-day and T20 matches against Hong Kong and the UAE official was particularly disappointing. Perhaps more instructive was the hullabaloo that followed the claims, made by a senior member of the Hong Kong Cricket Association, that England had said they could not afford to make the fixture an ODI: a reminder that the plight of the Associate nations was now of more interest to cricket supporters than ever before.

By 2019, the Associate nations might have provided the 11th Test team. If the requirements to qualify were arduous - a side had to first win the Intercontinental Cup and then beat the lowest-ranked Test side over four Tests home and away - they still offered a pathway of sorts. The early skirmishes in the Intercontinental Cup provided much intrigue: Papua New Guinea successfully chased 305 against Netherlands in their inaugural first-class match, Peter Borren took 4-1 to seal a tight victory for Netherlands against Scotland, and Afghanistan overturned an 151-run deficit to beat Papua New Guinea. But only Ireland won their first two games. That they prioritised a warm-up game for their Intercontinental Cup match with Namibia over more ODIs against Zimbabwe showed how seriously they treated the competition. Both their victories were underpinned by magisterial double-centuries from Ed Joyce, who might yet make good on his dream of playing Test cricket.

Throughout the year Joyce was one of many Associate cricketers to denounce the ICC's lack of enlightenment. While the ICC's Development Programme continued to do laudable work, the divide between the bottom Full Members and top Associates in funding and fixtures remained a chasm - and a roadblock to the ICC's stated ambition of making cricket the "world's favourite sport". When new ICC chairman Shashank Manohar denounced the "bullying" of the Big Three, it elicited much excitement among Associate representatives that the distribution of ICC revenue might be tweaked to give more funds to those beyond the Test world. Many are used to mooted egalitarian reforms not being realised.

If the future of the Associates remained fraught, it was palpable that more people than ever cared about cricket beyond the Test-playing elite. That was progress of a sort.