An ICC success story benefits Associates

Martin Williamson argues that Intercontinental Cup is an ICC success story

Jemermy Bray cracks a four on his way to 146 and the Man-of-the-Match award in Ireland's win over Canada © Martin Williamson
As expected, Ireland defended their Intercontinental Cup title at a canter at Grace Road, thumping an unprepared and outclassed Canadian side in a little over five sessions. In Windhoek two years ago, an inspired declaration set up a remarkable victory over Kenya. At Leicester, they barely broke sweat.
The one-sided final should not, however, disguise the fact that this competition continues to go from strength to strength. The ICC receives no end of brickbats, but this is one thing that is has got right and for that it deserves a pat on the back.
There have been teething problems. A skewed points system in the first two years seriously disadvantaged sides who suffered from the weather, but those were amended this time round. There was still a feeling that the group stages were a bit of a lottery and that the strongest sides did not necessarily win through to the final.
As a result, the 2007-08 tournament will undergo another major overhaul. Gone are the group stages and the final, and in their place we have a simple league format where each side plays the others once. Critics may argue that it's not truly reflective of each side's status unless they all meet on a home-and-away basis, but given tight budgets and the amateur status of most of the players, there have to be limits.
The increase in matches from a minimum of three in a year to seven in two years can only be good for the development of the game. Kenya recently sent a side to Zimbabwe to participate in the Logan Cup, the domestic first-class competition. While there was no doubting their ability, they came unstuck by their lack of familiarity with four-day cricket and often failed to press home advantages. The skills required for the longer game differ considerably from the one-day cricket which they almost exclusively play.
The Intercontinental Cup gives batsmen the opportunity to build an innings and teaches bowlers that it's not all about containment and wicket-taking does matter. In short, it allows the cream to rise to the top. It also provides a shop-window for players to try to impress potential employers.
The main flaws are financial. Canada would almost certainly have lost to Ireland even if they had all the preparation in the world. But some of their side went into the match not having played for months, and the demands of their full-time jobs meant their acclimatisation to English conditions was almost non existent. Only better funding can address that, and at least one leading Associate aims to go semi, if not fully, professional within the foreseeable future. Some monetary issues will be eased in 2009 when the income from the ICC's media deal with ESPN kicks in, resulting in a much bigger slice of the pie for all Associates.
There is also a worry that eight countries is too many. Four or five are there or thereabouts, but there is not strength in depth and with Bermuda in freefall, one of the up and coming countries appears to have done an abrupt about-turn and are heading south.
The 2007-08 competition, which starts in Toronto in five weeks, should sort the wheat from the chaff.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo