Cricket by association
The World Cricket League in Kenya pitted the six best Associate sides together. Just how close are they to the Test teams?
Anticipation ran high in Nairobi as Kenya prepared to host the World Cricket League early this year. Signs were draped from lampposts en route to the city advertising the 10-day tournament and there was a swagger among those in Kenya cricket that they were on the verge of putting on something quite special.
The six sides - Bermuda, Canada, Ireland, Kenya, Holland and Scotland - are the best of the rest, the elite of the non-elite. Much is made of the gap in ability between Associate nations and Full Member sides but, in the event, what also stood out was the gap between the Associates themselves. Kenya are at the top, Bermuda by some distance at the bottom. The others fl uctuate between them, with Scotland and Ireland battling it out for second and third. As it turned out, Scotland took second spot, beaten in the final by Kenya.
Oddly Bermuda are one of the few sides who count cricket as a national sport. Yet, despite a staggering government grant of $11m (around £5.6m), they cannot field a team who consistently match Kenya, Ireland or Scotland. David Hemp, the Glamorgan batsman now playing for Bermuda, has a unique viewpoint from which to judge their standing having spent so much time, since 1991, playing professionally in England and Wales.
"Bermuda are amateurs," he says. "They're not professionals and they all have jobs. They realise that this is new but they're slowly starting to realise it's not just about the technical things." Before this tournament, and even during it, Bermuda were rightly criticised for their lack of fitness. "Other countries just don't get tired, whereas our players do," he said. "Fitness is just not part of their job, their culture - and we're trying to change it quickly. But it's very hard and it takes time."
Bermuda's weakness against their peers, with whom they should be competing on nearly level terms, highlights the steepness of cricket's international ladder: the disparity between Associates and Full Member countries is huge and Roger Harper, the Kenya coach and former West Indies allrounder, is concerned about how to close the gap. "That's a serious challenge," he says. "What the exact answers are to speed up the process, I really don't know. We have amateurs and part-timers trying to close the gap on full-time professionals who are working on it every day to get better. But we have to look for solutions.
"When you look at teams like Ireland and Scotland, they have the opportunity to play in the England domestic professional system which gives them a lot of exposure, so you expect them to make progress. Ideally for a country like Kenya, if South Africa were to lend assistance and give us an opportunity to let us play in domestic cricket in South Africa, then that could speed up the process of this team moving forward and getting better."
This sounded perfectly reasonable and in the past Kenya have played in both the South African and West Indian domestic competitions. Why no more? Harper grinned and shrugged his shoulders. "Whenever these things are discussed, one word comes up which stops the discussion: finance." Harper paused, possibly for effect but more likely for bringing up a sticky topic. "Finance is not generated as easily as it is with Full Member countries - and that's the challenge. To an extent Ireland and Scotland are looked after a bit as they fall under the wing of the ECB but I don't think the other Associate countries are looked after as well."
Talking of money, the six teams had an additional financial incentive for the tournament: a sizeable $250,000 (around £128,000) to both finalists and entry into the Twenty20 World Championships in South Africa. For the Associates, it is a huge sum of money.
Kenya, for example, receive an annual ICC Associate grant of $70,000 (around £35,000), in addition to a high-performance grant, earned by finishing in the top six of the 2005 ICC Trophy, of $125,000 (around £64,000). This is peanuts compared with Testplaying nations but the cash injection for Scotland and Kenya at least gives them the possibility to plan for the future which, without money, is next to impossible.
In the end the inaugural tournament was a success. The crowds increased as the tournament progressed and the standard of cricket was pleasingly high. However, the positives to come out of it will be discovered only in the later months and years. Associate cricket has been given a boost in publicity but more is needed: more money and more matches. When this happens, the game really might become global.
This article was first published in the March 2007 issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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Will Luke is editorial assistant of Cricinfo