Quite often the message put forth from those at ICC level is that there aren't enough competitive teams in world cricket to justify expanding the tournament field for major events. In February, ICC chief executive David Richardson said there were only six teams capable of winning the World Cup and reiterated more or less the same thing this week in Dublin to justify shrinking the 2019 event to 10 teams.
Even at the Associate level, similar views have held firm, that Afghanistan and Ireland are the only truly competitive Associates. That stance is supported by the ICC's decision to put those two countries on the ODI rankings table while ignoring the other four Associates with ODI status - Scotland, UAE, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea. Even the MCC World Cricket Committee's recommendation of a 12-team World Cup reinforces this view that none of the other Associates are competitive.
The evidence provided at this month's ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier totally flies in the face of that. At a time when opportunities for Associates at major ICC tournaments are shrinking in alarming fashion, the competitive depth of Associates has never been greater.
Group A saw wild fluctuations in permutations from match to match. The Nepal side that finished third at the previous qualifier and won two matches at the World Twenty20 in 2014 finished bottom of its group in Ireland just 16 months later. Ireland had a 21-match winning streak at the tournament not only broken but turn into a two-match losing streak at the hands of Papua New Guinea and Hong Kong. The co-hosts managed to sneak in through the back door into first place with a bit of help from other results.
Even for two teams that didn't reach the knockout stage, there was much to crow about. Jersey upset Hong Kong on the opening day and after a win over Nepal, still had a mathematical chance of reaching the playoffs heading into their final group match against Ireland. Some outsiders were snickering at USA after fast bowler Hammad Shahid predicted a top-two finish, but the joke was on Hong Kong and PNG after USA beat both ODI nations in the last two days of group play with PNG's loss costing them a place in the World Twenty20.
In Group B, played in Scotland, the shakeup in results was just as dramatic. Four months removed from a gritty but winless performance at the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, UAE couldn't even reach the playoffs. Afghanistan had been to three straight finals against Ireland in the T20 Qualifier but had to scrape through an elimination showdown with PNG just to clinch a spot in India and a slot in the fifth-place playoff.
No greater piece of evidence shows the strength of depth in Associate cricket than the performance of Oman. The Middle Eastern nation went winless in group play on their last trip to the qualifier in 2012 and they sit in Division Five of the World Cricket League, ranked 29th in the world. Yet, they beat Afghanistan and Netherlands in Scotland before upending Namibia in a thrilling chase at Malahide to clinch a spot in India.
Cricket administrators pride themselves on declaring cricket the second most popular sport, which is true by pure volume of eyeballs watching thanks to India, but in terms of breadth of expansion, they are still light-years away from matching soccer. For all of FIFA's administrative foibles, no one can accuse them of running an exclusive tournament and denying opportunities for expansion into emerging markets.
Even though Richardson argues that only six or eight countries are competitive enough to win a trophy in cricket, the same could easily be said in soccer. Only eight countries have ever won a FIFA World Cup - Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Uruguay. Even at Brazil 2014, the four semi-finalists - Brazil, Germany, Netherlands and Argentina - fell in line with pre-tournament expectations.
But that didn't stop FIFA from inviting 32 teams to participate. One of the most entertaining matches of the tournament was a see-saw affair between Australia and the Netherlands, the lowest ranked team in the tournament field at number 62 versus the 15th ranked team who went on to the semis. Only nine countries outside of Europe and South America have ever even reached a FIFA World Cup quarter-final - USA, Cuba, Cameroon, Costa Rica, Ghana, Mexico, North Korea, South Korea and Senegal - yet if UEFA president Michel Platini had his way, he'd expand the tournament to 40 or even 48 teams.
There is no desperation from FIFA to get Brazil on television nine times in order to make a profitable event. Meanwhile, the ICC continues to be at the mercy of the BCCI in order to stay out of the red on the balance sheets when it comes to the formats for cricket's world events. FIFA understands though that the festival atmosphere of the group stage can be a successful recipe for keeping eyeballs tuned in and is just as important if not more so than who winds up in FIFA's final. In the long-term, that will pay off more for everyone involved.
This ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier has been the most exciting one yet. Very little deadweight, plenty of upsets, and enough parity between the participants to keep the result in doubt up until the final ball is bowled as was the case between Hong Kong and Afghanistan. It has made for a wonderful party over the past two weeks, with enough pop left in store for the semis and final on Saturday and Sunday and shown that the depth is there for more teams to compete at a higher level.
During their victory celebrations on Thursday that carried on near the north boundary at Malahide, Omani left-arm spinner Aamir Kaleem sang out improvised lyrics in Urdu while the team responded with the English chorus, "World Cup! India! 2016!" Derek Pringle, Oman's technical consultant, shouted out above the melody to one of the other management staff nearby, "This sure sounds like a number one hit to me!" Sadly, the Full Members are making Oman and the other Associates turn the music down.