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The painfully small margins in Associate cricket

Captain Paras Khadka leads the celebratory charge after Nepal clinched a dramatic win Peter Della Penna

Three good balls.

Three good balls have produced an unprecedented butterfly effect on Associate cricket.

Three good balls were the difference between a side going back to Division Three with limited opportunity for growth and gaining ODI status for the first time and in so doing expand their horizons.

Nepal finished on the right side of the equation. But it could so easily have been UAE or Hong Kong or Canada or Namibia .

Three good balls summed up the intense competition between Associates in 2018.

On day one of WCL Division Two, all Namibia needed was one good ball to see off Nepal's last wicket stand. Nepal needed 18 runs, and they got it.

A few days later, the equation was even simpler. Two runs to win. One ball in hand. A yorker could have done it for Kenya but Nepal sneaked home again.

On the last day of round-robin play, Nepal needed 51 runs to win but all Canada needed was one good ball.

Three good balls, one at a time, a few days apart, were the difference between Nepal topping the group-stage table at WCL Division Two and heading to the World Cup Qualifier, alongside UAE, and being relegated to Division Three, with Kenya following them.

UAE's players now sit in Zimbabwe, content in the knowledge that their central contracts, which hinged on keeping ODI status, are safe for the foreseeable future. Their two league-stage wins at the World Cup Qualifier secured a place in the Super Six, and guaranteed a top-three finish among Associate teams at the tournament. But a month ago, in Namibia, the players couldn't have been more on edge heading into a must-win match against Oman.

According to Paul Radley, who covers the UAE cricket for the National and contributes to ESPNcricinfo, the loss of ODI status could have meant termination of the players' contracts, many of whom can only stay in the country if they kept their job. With their backs against the wall, they found a way to beat Oman that day, and later Namibia to guarantee their place in the Qualifier.

Three good balls would have meant Namibia and Canada finishing Division Two with a 4-1 record and progressing to the Qualifier instead of Nepal and UAE. It would have meant a player like Gerhard Erasmus delaying his law school ambitions for at least one more tournament. It would have meant Namibia captain Sarel Burger and Craig Williams carrying on with hopes of claiming a World Cup berth and ODI status instead of announcing their retirements shortly after Division Two. It would have meant Canada captain Nitish Kumar eyeing an expedited path back to the central contracts his team-mates relinquished, along with with their ODI status, in 2014.

Three good balls may also have meant Hong Kong avoiding the newest bowling wunderkind in Associate cricket. Needing a win on the last day of round-robin play to advance to the Super Sixes, which would have kept their World Cup dreams alive and secured ODI status for another four years, Hong Kong were dismantled by 17-year-old Sandeep Lamichhane, who will taste the global spotlight playing for Delhi Daredevils later this year.

Three good balls would have resulted in a talent that the IPL wanted plying his trade in the relative anonymity of WCL Division Three.

Oh, and in between all that, Afghanistan, who won only one game in the league stage of the Qualifier, were thrust into the Super Six instead.

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Hong Kong are feeling the repercussions of such slim margins in other ways too. In February 2017, they lost a pair of final-over nail-biters to Netherlands in round five of the WCL Championship. Five runs separated the teams in the first instance, 13 in the next. Flip either of those results and it is Hong Kong who win the WCL Championship to become the 13th team in the impending ODI League instead of Netherlands; both teams would have ended equal on 20 points but Hong Kong had the better net run-rate.

Netherlands have already felt that agony. In the 2011-13 WCL Championship, they finished one point behind Afghanistan and an automatic place in the World Cup was lost. A few months later, they were stripped of ODI status.

A Hong Kong team that registered their maiden ODI win over a Full Member on March 8, beating Afghanistan, saw their ODI status vanish one week later. A Nepal team that was thrashed by Division Three's USA in December - albeit with captain Paras Khadka resting - is now an ODI nation. These results - and the ones that might have been - highlight the strength and depth of Associate cricket, which, arguably, has never been better.

Though they made it through several close shaves, Nepal's solitary loss at Division Two in February was a convincing one, to Oman, a team that has harnessed the momentum gained from a victory over Ireland in the 2016 World T20 to storm their way up the 50-over ladder. Two years ago, they were in Division Five. Now they're nipping at the heels of international teams.

Yet, instead of expanding the playing opportunities for Associates, in name (ODI status) and in practice (more teams in more tournaments), the ICC sent down a few googlies that even Rashid Khan would envy.

When Ireland and Afghanistan were elevated as Full Members last year, the initial line of thought from those on the Associates beat was that it would set a model for other countries to follow and also open up two commensurate spots for a different pair of Associates to enjoy what Afghanistan and Ireland just left behind, specifically ODI status and a spot in the four-day Intercontinental Cup. After all, since 2005, there had always been six Associates - decided at the conclusion of the World Cup Qualifier - with ODI status.

Instead, the ICC took a different tack and decided that the total number of teams with ODI status stays rigid at 16: 12 Full Members and four Associates. Rather than giving the top side after Afghanistan and Ireland in the Intercontinental Cup a shot at the four-Test challenge, the idea was scrapped with ICC chief executive David Richardson calling it "unnecessary". The increased Full-Member funding going to Ireland and Afghanistan is also being subtracted from the collective Associate pot.

All of those decisions have played into fears about more Associate reductions. ICC development programme administrators have kept mum when questioned over the last few months about the future of the WCL Championship, the entire World Cricket League structure and the Intercontinental Cup.

The next Division Four tournament is scheduled for April in Malaysia, leading into Division Three later this year followed by Division Two in 2019 where Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea among others ostensibly have a shot at climbing back to the next edition of the WCL Championship. But will there be a next edition? There have been no assurances.

For Nepal though, those worries are far from their minds. Their progress to ODI status is cause for celebration from Harare to Kathmandu. In the cutthroat world of Associate cricket, all it would have taken is three good balls to change their fortunes - and that of so many other teams - so dramatically over the last six weeks. From Basant Regmi to Rohit Paudel and Sompal Kami to Karan KC and Sandeep Lamichhane, Nepal held their nerve like no other team has with so much on the line to become legends in their homeland.

But in a golden age of Associate parity, three good balls shouldn't deny so many other teams - who are just as competitive as Nepal - the status and gateway to more funding and playing opportunities.