How are kids to aspire to become cricketers if they can't watch role models from their countries on the biggest stage?
February 24, 2003 was when I fell in love with cricket. Maurice Odumbe bowls Dilhara Fernando and Kenya beat Sri Lanka by 53 runs. The players, draped with Kenyan flags run laps around the Nairobi Gymkhana ground to thank the crowd. They need not have bothered. Most of the crowd was on the field, running laps with them in celebration of one of the World Cup's great cricketing upsets. I, an 11-year-old boy at the time, caught up in the atmosphere and euphoric scenes, was one of them.
This match and Kenya's thrilling run to the semi-final of the 2003 World Cup inspired me, as I am sure it did many other young Kenyans to want to play cricket.
Associate nations need the World Cup because it provides the opportunity to be seen on a world stage, to be watched on TV and to inspire young children back home to take up the game.
That match in Nairobi was watched by a full stadium of 15,000 people. I made my ODI debut against Netherlands in 2011 at The Hague. We were watched by 20 people, the groundsman, and his dog. Put bluntly, World Cricket League games played between Associate sides at empty grounds do not inspire future generations of kids to play cricket. World Cup matches against Test nations in full stadiums do.
David Richardson's belief that World Cups should be played "between evenly matched teams" is horribly shortsighted. A couple of one-sided thrashings every four years seems a small price to pay for expanding the game outside of the Test nations. That a lot of games are one-sided is hardly the Associates' fault, though, given that the World Cup is usually the only time they get to play Test sides.
As one fan wrote in a comment on an ESPNcricinfo article: "The problem isn't that the Big 8 play Associates at the World Cup. It's that they ONLY play at the World Cup. You're expecting Associates to face for the first time, cope with, learn from and overcome Mitchell Starc yorkers in a single game."
I can't help but feel a golden opportunity was missed by the ICC to let Papua New Guinea host a game at this current World Cup
That said, the current World Cup has shown that despite all the obstacles put in their way, the Associates have managed to close the gap in the last four years. Most of the matches between Associates and Test sides have been competitive, and the matches between the Associates have been some of the closest and most exhilarating.
Associate nations need the World Cup for their survival. Not only for the financial boost and sponsorship opportunities it provides, but more for the exposure World Cups give Associates back home. Removing Associates from the World Cup will be the quickest way of nullifying the progress and development many of them have made in the last decade. For Associate teams to sustainably progress and build a player base large enough that they will be able to challenge Test nations, cricket has to become part of the sporting culture.
Children have to grow up playing the game, watching their national team live and on television, to ever consider cricket as a career option. It's the only way playing numbers in the Associate nations will grow and create a foundation from which they can progress. The best way of doing this is through the World Cup.
Ireland provides the best example of my point. Cricket is nowhere near as popular in Ireland as the football codes but it is certainly growing as a result of the success of their national side over the last decade. Predominantly, the success they have had in World Cups.
At the 2007 World Cup, there will have been a number of Irish kids whose passion for cricket was ignited, much like mine was in 2003, by watching their famous upset of Pakistan. At the 2011 World Cup, I imagine there might have been even more as a result of Kevin O'Brien's magnificent hundred in the victory over England. Hopefully, as Ireland push for a quarter-final spot, cricket will be all over the press in Ireland and more people will take note of their exploits.
Cricket is not a significant part of Irish sporting culture at present but it is certainly growing and it is not hard to see it become a major part if Ireland continue to progress towards their dream of Test status. If they do not qualify for the 2019 World Cup (and the ICC, by staging the qualifying tournament in Bangladesh has made sure the odds are stacked against them) it will be a travesty. All the work done in the last decade will have been for nothing.
Far from reducing the number of Associates in the World Cup, the ICC should be trying as hard as it can to give them more exposure. I can't help but feel a golden opportunity was missed by the ICC to let Papua New Guinea host a game at this current World Cup. Similarly, if the ICC does the right thing and revokes its decision, the 2019 edition provides the perfect chance to let Ireland, Scotland and Netherlands host a game or two each.
February 22, 2015 was when a young Afghan boy fell in love with cricket. With his headband, face paint and death stare to match, Hamid Hassan charges in to bowl to Kumar Sangakkara. The Afghan version of Rambo bowls a 145kph missile that cannons into Sangakkara's off stump. Hassan, who learnt his cricket in a refugee camp while his country was ravaged by war, has just clean-bowled one of the all-time great batsmen. He cartwheels in celebration, he beats the ground with his fist, like King Kong, his team-mates dive all over him. In remote Dunedin, Hassan has just inspired a young Afghan boy glued to his TV in Kabul. The young boy, caught up in those euphoric scenes, dreams one day of emulating his heroes at a World Cup.