For years the second tier of cricket, known as the Associates, had been languishing in amateur status unable even to beat the county cricket teams in England. However in 2000 the ICC introduced the high-performance programme, which took four nations - Kenya, Namibia, United Arab Emirates and Canada - that had qualified for the 2003 World Cup in South Africa and gave them funding and expert coaching to help and aid their development. Seven years down the line, the next group of associate nations have now improved beyond all recognition. Scotland, Ireland, Holland, Bermuda, Canada and Kenya make up the high performance nations for the 2007 World Cup.
My view is that the World Cup is a wonderful incentive for these countries to improve their cricket internally and help grow the game worldwide. It is a long-term project that needs all the help it can get. Ultimately, it's only when the players in those countries are playing regular top-class cricket and are paid professionally that they will start to make inroads into the Full Member nations.
In addition, players who were born in the high-performance countries but moved overseas with their parents when they were young are now returning to the land of their birth to help with their experience and to try and gain a place in the team with the World Cup as their incentive. In fact the ICC has increased the funding 10-fold in order to narrow the gap between the full member countries and the Associates.
The associate countries have been prepared better for this World Cup than ever before and it has started to show in their performances. Ireland, in particular, have shown a rapid improvement, captained by an Australian, Trent Johnston, a medium-fast seamer and, with a number of players who have county experience in England, they have a very good team. Any side underestimating them will be doing themselves few favours.
Ireland recently had South Africa 98 for 8, which means that their bowling is very disciplined. The Irish have six out of seven lefthanders in the upper order and they are young and fit on the field. They are, in other words, a serious banana skin fixture.
All things being equal, international and full time professionals should beat their amateur counterparts 99% of the time. It is that nagging 1% that keeps teams honest and in fact the odds are greater in the six associate member nations because of the time and money spent on them. They now have a full-time four-day competition and at least three to four one-day tournaments in the lead-up to the World Cup.
They are now looked after by full-time trainers and coaches and in order to make the most of this some players have had to take nine months unpaid leave to play. They certainly have the motivation to want to do well.
The acid test, of course, is whether they can maintain their form and are able to deal with the professional cricketers. I find the golf analogy useful when trying to assess the difference (though there are no handicaps to assist). Professional golfers have been known to hit 2000 balls a day each while their amateur counterparts only have an eighth of the time to practice and consequently hit about 250 balls a day - and some of us on average about 1 extra ball a day per annum.
Practice is relative; it helps as long as it is constructive but the bottom line is that the professional sportsman generally hits far more balls, bowls far more balls and catches far more than his amateur counterpart and therefore should be better skills wise. The Pakistan v Ireland contest therefore should go the way of Pakistan, though it will, without doubt, be a real contest and Pakistan will not be treating this game lightly especially in view of the first game loss to the West Indies.
Strategically, Ireland will try and bowl tight lines and lengths with the keeper standing up to stifle the free-flowing style of the Pakistan batting line up and Pakistan too will try and bring a game plan that will apply pressure on the Irish bowling. The fielding should be of even standard and the bowling of Pakistan, with its variety, should cause the Irish batting some problems.
Despite the efforts of the high-performance programme the result should favour the Full Member nation. Inzamam-ul-Haq alone has played 350-plus matches; add the caps won by the whole Irish eleven, multiply by 10 and they do not have his experience! However all the conjecture and words mean nothing and it will be the intensity of competition that will eventually decide the outcome of this contest.
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