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October 3, 2008
While the giants do their worst, the minnows are scrapping for attention. India and Australia are about to reopen some old wounds, and probably create a few new ones, but elsewhere in the world - in the dusty outpost of Dar Es Salaam - the lesser-known cricketing colonies are facing off in Division Four of the World Cricket League, and the stakes are increasingly high.
Ponting v Harbhajan this is not. Yet for all the stereotypes - yes, Jersey is more famous for its prized potatoes; Afghanistan is war-torn, and surely Hong Kong are populated entirely by double-barrelled-named expats? - the WCL is an increasingly important development phrase for Associates and Affiliates. The top two teams from Division Four proceed to the third division, whose competition is to be held in Argentina in January. And the finalists from that, if you're still following, are given the chance to qualify for the 2011 World Cup, hosted in Asia. They may only be semi-professional at best, but that only adds to the Boy's Own feel of it all.
Afghanistan, Fiji, Italy, Jersey and Tanzania join Hong Kong in the seven-day tournament, and their coach, the former Leicestershire and England batsman Aftab Habib, is itching to get going. His side are the current Asian Cricket Council Trophy holders, and though the experience of playing in the Asia Cup was chastening, it was a vital wake-up call.
"I am quietly confident," Habib, who is 12 months into a three-year contract, told Cricinfo. "A lot of the teams here, Jersey and Afghanistan, are pretty strong teams. If Afghanistan can wake up on the right side of the bed, they will be very dangerous and with Jersey they're just well organised.
"Having played a lot of cricket in the UK and occasionally playing in Jersey, I imagine they'll be very well disciplined, and some of them have played county cricket. They'll be tough. The majority will be hard to beat, but a lot depends on the quality of the wickets here and how they perform. They look flat and slow and may not last a day. It's who performs on the day who will win."
Clichés are no less prominent in Associate cricket, but Habib has a point. This is Dar-es-Salaam, not Durban. Its curators cannot call on gleaming new mowers and their outfields are more likely to have sown root vegetables than years of meticulously prepared clay soil.
"You have to look at the facilities of Hong Kong. We don't have a lot of grass wickets to play on, and being an Associate team you have to bear in mind you have to be very patient with what goes on. It's not like a major international team; you have to be patient and you do hit your head against the wall a few times."
Habib is appealingly optimistic about Hong Kong's chances in the immediate future, yet for all their ability - he is adamant two of his younger members have the chance to play county cricket - they lack the uninhibited flare of Afghanistan. Notoriously confident - their former coach, Taj Malik, threatened to throw himself into the Atlantic if they didn't win Division Five - their ambition apparently knows no bounds. It is hard not to be charmed by a collection of cricketers, many of whom are refugees, whose country has been savaged and ravaged by war; whose belief is unwavering almost to the point of naivety. Yet they continue to win, and win well.
"If we go through this phase safely, I genuinely believe we can get to the next World Cup," said Kabir Khan, who was appointed coach last month. "If you give the players good quality coaching, in two or three years time they [could] compete with teams like Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Ireland and Scotland. They could go up that high, although I'm not saying they could challenge the big teams in 50-over cricket yet.
"I think they are in a much better frame of mind now. In 10-15 days you can't do a lot of technical stuff but we've concentrated on mind cricket. It has been about tactical not technical cricket. We are working on getting them together and unified. We are trying to make the team united and teach them how to act as a team.
"In the past there were a lot of individual performances, but not a lot of team performances. Now we are concentrating on being a team. In both warm-up matches [this week] we have been down but have come back. Against Italy, we were 30 for 4, but the batsmen at five and six came and scored 90 runs.
"The players have said that in the past they would never have come back from situations like that."
So far, so promising, and as Khan alludes to, there are signs of growing maturity among the squad. Even of growing ambition. But for all their optimism and hope for the future, what good is it when the facilities they make do with are so mediocre? It is a chicken-and-egg situation: they need to perform well in order to attract sponsorship; they need sponsorship to help improve the pitches and facilities that can harbour the talent they have.
"We need support from other Test-playing nations, facilities wise," Khan says. "There are not a lot of facilities over there in Afghanistan. We need Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka to help us with facilities, groom our players and provide them with higher quality coaches.
"We need to play against their teams - not at a higher level, but at a lower level - and they will get a taste of good cricket. They don't play more than 35-over cricket back home, so we need to give them 50-overs or even longer. If we get a chance to play in something like the Intercontinental Cup that will be a big morale boost for them and you will be able to see all the talent they have got if they are introduced to four-day cricket."
The ICC have pledged a further 6% of their broadcasting revenue to Associate and Affiliate from next January, which will hopefully seep through to those who most need it. Despite the ICC's gaffes in recent years, their commitment to developing cricket beyond the Test world - while often considered a hopeless cause - is admirable and necessary. It's now up to the likes of Afghanistan and Hong Kong to make good ICC's investment, and cling on to the 2011 dream.
The first matches get underway on Saturday. Cricinfo will be providing match reports each day, along with exclusive blogs from the leading players at Beyond the Test World
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