Every four years, teams from beyond the Test world participate in the World Cup. And every four years the question of whether or not they should be allowed into the next one comes up.
Every four years, some of us take the large-hearted view that if cricket is to be a global game then more teams must play it at a high standard and the way to achieve this is to ensure more frequent competition between the best teams and the "lighter teams" (formerly pejoratively known as "minnows" until MS Dhoni rescued them with this elegant phrase). A few others take the hard-hearted view that since the lighter teams are not as good as the best teams, matches between the two are boring and should be kept to a minimum. And a few pragmatic ones take the long-term view: if we invest in the lighter sides today, we might have a bigger, more profitable game in some distant tomorrow.
All these positions are unsatisfactory because they miss the basic point. It is irrelevant how good the best players in a country are at playing cricket. The total amount of cricket played - for leisure, for pleasure, for friendship or for exercise - is at the essential heart of the matter.
I believe that societies and communities that are intimately interested in sport for all genders are better and more humane than societies and communities that aren't. For this reason alone, cricket is worth spreading. Think about Afghanistan. Think about the number of wars its people have suffered, the number of utterly stupid, horribly well-armed buffoons - Russian, British, American, Australian, local and neighbouring and many others - whose unimaginably cruel ministrations that beleaguered society has had to suffer over the last 40 years or so.
If cricket, football, hockey and many other sports make sincere, well-intentioned attempts to capture the attention of Afghanistan's people, maybe some of them will derive some small pleasure from playing these sports again, watching and arguing about them. It really doesn't matter if Afghanistan produce a Test team. Nor does it matter if they win the World Cup one day. What matters is the children and young people there have many sports to play, and get to play as many as they like.
"Does professional sport exist because it is valuable to society that it be played at a high level of excellence? Or does it exist because sport is a profitable corporate enterprise?"
Cricket is not popular in India because India has a Test team. It was popular in India before we had one. Test teams are built from the bottom up. It is popular in India because children love to play it. Children in India love to play football too. I doubt most of the kids who actually play football in India care about the English Premier League. More pertinently, I doubt that most fans of the English Premier League in India could run a round along the edge of a full-sized football ground.
To say that Afghanistan must have a Test team so that the sport becomes more popular there is a bit like saying that Afghanistan must have bad soap operas on TV so that people in that society begin to develop a taste for bad acting and bad writing. At the very least, we are confusing cause and effect here.
Sport, the television consumer product, and sport, the social necessity, have about as much to do with each other chalk and cheese.
At its core, professional sport is a corporate bureaucracy in which the exceptional talents of a minuscule few provide lucrative employment for an increasing number of far less exceptionally gifted many.
It is not surprising that umpiring in the professional game has become more bureaucratic as the game has become more profitable. The large bureaucracy that produces the sport as a spectacle (the press, the commentators, the administrators and assorted others) can no longer tolerate the occasional, ultimately trivial oversights and mistakes made by one individual in real time. As a result, we now use ten more rules to enforce the lbw rule marginally more accurately.
Cricket itself is not bureaucratic. All it takes is a bat, a ball (after a fashion), and the need to play. Stumps can be drawn on walls, wicketkeeper or non-striker can double as umpire, players from the batting side can field. Is there a building with low windows at midwicket? No problem. We will declare that any shot that hits the building on the full is out. Let's just play.
Here, rules are made in the service of the game. Around the professional game, it seems that nothing is done these days in the interests of the game. Everything is done in the interests of profit. Sometimes it seems that the ICC is only interested in cricket because it happens to be profitable.
Yes, I know. Why dismiss profit? Where will the wealth required to spread cricket to different parts of the world come from, you might ask.
Does it cost that much money to play cricket? Did the BCCI have enormous marketing budgets for the purpose of spreading the game in India in the 20th century? Did it have large committees of well-paid, MBA-holding executives attended to by other highly paid MBA-holding consultants explaining how it might get Indian children to play cricket? Did it have private cable television to spread the game to the distant corners of the country for much of the 20th century? Were people in India sitting idle, waiting with bated breath for cricket to appear and fill their empty lives?
The question of profit is really a matter of accounting. Not just in the narrow financial sense (where you show the taxman as little profit as you can get away with, and investors as much profit as you can get away with), but in a larger sense. How much profit is derived by a society in which young boys and girls have the opportunity to play lots of sports? How many dollars is it worth per child? Over how many years does this return accrue?
Some of you hardened business types may find it preposterous that I'm considering profit in this cavalier way. Let me drive home this point in another way. AB de Villiers is the best batsman in the world today. Many people buy tickets or cable subscriptions to watch cricket matches because he plays in them. When he was growing up, he played rugby and hockey in addition to cricket. He was even shortlisted for South Africa's national junior hockey team. Without any doubt, the development of de Villiers' cricketing genius benefited from the opportunity to play all these other sports in his formative years. How many dollars does cricket owe hockey and rugby for this? If you can't measure the value of this, is it correct and decent to simply pretend that the value is zero and accept the advantage for free? Would that not be ungrateful?
The question of whether or not Associate teams should play cricket at a higher level is really one about why international professional cricket exists. Does it exist because sport is a great thing for society and because it is valuable to society that it be organised and played at a high level of excellence? Or does it exist because sport is a profitable corporate enterprise?
We do not need the Associate nations because we need to make sure that cricket is a bigger, more profitable business 50 years from now. Nor do we need them in the World Cup because they need cricket, and we need, out of the sheer goodness of our hearts, to provide it to them.
No, we need the Associate nations because the alternative for us is to be dragged down a humourless, soul-sapping path, at the end of which lies an uninspiring corporate product named cricket that exists only for the incurious many who can pay large amounts of money to buy it. We need the Associate nations in the World Cup because our sport needs them more than they need the profits.