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When rumours first emerged from India that an intercontinental one-day challenge series was being organised between teams representing Asia and Africa, they were greeted with a mixture of scepticism and confusion, and a degree of contempt. And when the tournament actually materialised, in South Africa in August 2005, it soon became clear that it was basically designed to raise money.
Asian television audiences are, it seems, insatiable in their desire to watch cricket - and Jagmohan Dalmiya, the former Indian board chief, had worked his undoubted administrative magic to conjure up a tournament expected to raise $12m over its three-year lifetime. According to Dalmiya, the money would bring his long-held dream to reality: "When I was a student I dreamed that cricket would become a truly global game," he said, "and the money raised by this tournament will go towards developing the game in smaller cricket-playing countries on both continents."
Dalmiya was at the forefront of establishing an eight-strong committee to approve and oversee the distribution of funds: rather than simply handing out dollops of cash to countries like Nepal, Afghanistan, Uganda and Botswana, the committee planned schemes such as age-group competitions. It proved difficult, though, to nail down precise details of how much cash was involved and where it was going. "I can't answer that question," admitted Cassiem Sulliman, who was in charge of the African side of the operation. "You'll have to ask Jagmohan Dalmiya."
Apart from the development plans, the organisers also announced that 10% of the profits would be donated to charities dedicated to fighting blindness, which afflicts so many people on both continents. It was a gesture that made the tournament much less unlovable.
Inzamam-ul-Haq dutifully spoke of his pride at being selected to lead the Asian squad, while his vice-captain Muttiah Muralitharan mentioned the honour involved in representing Asia at anything. Privately, however, they were at a loss to understand the point of the venture, but were happily consoled by the conviviality of the welcome they always receive in Durban, home to the largest expatriate Asian community anywhere, and by the prize money, which, at $100,000, was pretty good compensation for a week's work. Not that it felt much like work.
Whereas Asia could have produced two more teams as strong as the one that was chosen, a full-strength African squad would have included only one non-South African, Heath Streak, and possibly his fellow Zimbabwean Tatenda Taibu. So while it was a whirlwind experience for those two and the three Kenyans who were picked, the South African players were inclined to treat the whole exercise as, well, exercise. "I can't say I'm as excited about it as I would be if I was playing for South Africa," admitted Jacques Kallis. "It's just another game of cricket, like a pre-season warm-up, because it's obviously not strength versus strength."
Try as the organisers might, there was an air of unreality about the games, which started at noon so they would conclude at Indian prime time. The main talking point among the smattering of 1,000 or so spectators for the first match at Centurion was the state of the outfield: it had been spraypainted green to disguise the effects of the dry Highveld winter, which kills the grass and turns it white.
Even the dates were ill-chosen - the first game coincided with Zimbabwe playing (and losing) a Test match against New Zealand up the road in Bulawayo, thus preventing 50% of Africa's Test teams from providing any players at all. The cricketing world was somewhat more engaged by the Ashes series in England. And finally the overall result was inconclusive. The African XI squeaked home in the first match, Asia were more comfortable winners of the second one - and the Durban weather closed in on the final instalment, leaving this ersatz tournament all-square at 1-1.
Supporters and optimists cited golf's Ryder Cup as an example of how popular and successful intercontinental sport can become, but, if all great things have humble beginnings, these were very humble ones indeed. The ICC's decision to grant full one-day international status was a curious one, given that its own Anti-Corruption Unit had concluded four years earlier that meaningles one-day games were the most likely targets for match-fixers.
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