Dissent and criticism of the ICC's decision to cull Associate nations from the 2015 World Cup intensified further on the opening day of the current tournament. Grant Flower, Zimbabwe's batting coach, and Canada's captain Ashish Bagai added their voices to a growing chorus of dissatisfaction that has, if not overshadowed the opening days, then dampened a little the celebratory nature of the occasion.
Already a number of Associate countries, foremost among them Kenya's chief executive Tom Sears, have hit out at the ICC's reaffirmation on Friday of a decision taken in October last year. Afghanistan and Netherlands have also weighed in: "Our players are always motivated but those comments were disappointing," Netherlands team manager Ed van Nierop told AFP.
"I can't see what it does for the global element of the competition by going back down to 10 teams. I guess the proposals for the Twenty20 are a bit of a bonus but the World Cup is still the premier ICC tournament." Notably, Graeme Swann also chipped in, saying the decision had taken the 'world' out of the World Cup.
But on Saturday came the most articulate and extensive questioning from Bagai, ahead of his side's game against Sri Lanka in Hambantota. "The World Cup should involve as much of the world as you possibly can," he said. "It's a shame and very disappointing for players like us who were looking for opportunities to play against the best in the world. That's the only way to improve as cricketers, as nations. It's really going to hold back the growth of the game. If they want to keep it to 10 teams, which they want to do, that's fine, but it's never going to be a global sport that way."
The trade-off, according to the ICC, is that more Associates will be involved in the World Twenty20: the next edition will have 16 teams now, but they have yet to decide how the final ten teams will be selected for the next 50-over world tournament. The recommendation to cut down Associates' participation, incidentally, was reached at the ICC's board meeting in October by a working party made up of David Collier (England), James Sutherland (Australia) and N Srinivasan (India) with no Associate representation, and only Dave Richardson of the ICC.
But the increased T20 participation doesn't tally with the efforts of Associate nations to ultimately push for Test status, the format, Bagai arguing, not ideal for that purpose. "You can see where the ICC is headed and the direction they think cricket is going. It might be a commercial move because T20 sells the best globally. I don't think it's going to help many countries produce top level Test cricketers."
Flower said the decision was a step "backwards", arguing that smaller countries need more exposure, not less, an argument echoed by Bagai. "It's a big challenge to get these games every four years," he said. "By the time we're used to playing these teams the World Cup is over. The only way to play well against them is to keep playing them repeatedly. The boards of the top Associates have asked for more games throughout the four years so we can get some practice against some good quality opposition during the years outside the World Cup."
This is the fourth time Canada - one of four associate teams in this tournament - is participating in the game's showpiece event and the third in succession since 2003. Though they only have a win over Bangladesh to show for that time Bagai believes the country's cricket has built an identity and homegrown base of players that deserves to be showcased more often.
"[The Sahara Cup games between India and Pakistan] did inspire a lot of people in the country," he said. "Back in 2000 we had a lot of new joiners and infrastructure development at that time tremendously helped us. Tournaments like that are always helpful for smaller countries to generate interest and get media involved and generate revenues, which is very important for us. More of those are needed."
On Friday, their Sri Lankan coach Pubudu Dassanayake said the move was a "severe setback". Rizwan Cheema, one of their key players, said the 50-over game was a must for development. "If you want to look at it from another perspective, you have to have competition and give small teams an idea to play against big teams and increase confidence. Otherwise cricket will stay in nine countries. We all aim for Test status because cricket really changes when you get to that level," he told ESPNcricinfo. "It's not a good feeling, because at Associate level we haven't really got anything else to play against big teams."
The most memorable recent Associate performances in the tournament include Kenya's semi-final run in 2003 and Ireland's performances in the 2007 edition.