Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa
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Next week's ICC annual get-together promises to have more than its fair share of politicking, posturing and controversy. But, unless there is a major about-turn, it should also be a watershed for the Associates and Affiliates.
In 2009, income from the ICC's six-year media deal with ESPN-Star, worth over US$1 billion, kicks in, and while the game's big boys will still keep the lion's share, the rest will see substantial increases in their incomes.
Although the ICC draws considerable flak on many fronts, it is quietly committed to promoting the game in as many countries as possible, and it does that by means of a myriad of competitions and initiatives. Most do not warrant much media attention, but they are there and they work.
Until now, the gripe of the smaller countries, and especially those bubbling just underneath the top flight, has been about the inequality of the way in which the game is financed. That was never more apparent than when it came to earnings from last year's World Cup.
Ireland got a flat fee of US$125,000 a year for four years for taking part, and on top of that they received another $50,000 for reaching the Super Eights. However, because of the extra costs involved in their progression, not least because their players are not professional cricketers and their absences from their full-time jobs had to be underwritten, Ireland's success actually left the board out of pocket.
Zimbabwe, on the other hand, turned up, tied with Ireland and never threatened to progress after being thumped by Pakistan and West Indies. For those three matches, Zimbabwe Cricket received US$11 million, their share of the pot as a Full Member.
The top six Associates receive no more than US$500,000 a year - some substantially less - to fund their entire operations. Out of that they have to pay all their cricketing and administration costs. Only those with a low cost of living, such as Kenya, can hope to maintain a professional squad on that kind of money.
The gulf between the haves and have-nots is further widened by the limited sums Associates can earn from sponsorship and media contracts. Zimbabwe can exploit home series against, say, India to carve out lucrative TV deals worth millions, and on the back of that, attract shirt- and other corporate sponsorship. As highlighted by Scotland's failure to secure any TV deal for their forthcoming ODI against England, the Associates struggle to get such income streams.
The new deals will provide a substantial increase for Associates, especially for the countries who are pressing for space at the top table. Until now the share has been roughly equal, rewarding Netherlands and Kenya on par with Thailand and Fiji. The new system will see more demarcation between the top Associates and the rest.
The leading ten could earn as much as US$1.5 million a year from 2009. There will then be an onus on them to professionalise their administrations, but several of them are already well down that route. They will also be more accountable - the ICC does not want a repeat of the mess that came following a spike in Kenya's funding earlier in the decade.
The second-string Associates will also get more - around US$160,000 as a base figure - but then again the demands on them are less. Even Affiliates will receive US$15,000, with the opportunity for more should they make a good enough case. There will also be more cash in the pot for participating and hosting competitions.
There have never been more opportunities for development outside the Full Member countries, but there remain some nagging worries.
The main one is how to bridge the gap between semi and full-blown professionalism. Almost all the Associates rely on dedicated amateurs, both on and off the field. As the number of ICC competitions has increased - and they have to be welcomed - the pressure has begun to tell. Scotland and Ireland particularly have already found players cannot meet all their commitments, and even the increased income will not allow them to employ a full-time squad.
"So much of putting players on full-time retainers depends on how many fixtures we can command," Warren Deutrom, Cricket Ireland's chief executive, said. "At the moment, all we can promise the squad in 2009 is a World Cup qualifying campaign, eight FP Trophy matches, an England game, and probably some Intercontinental Cup matches. Of course, we hope to have more, but can't be sure at the moment.
"Our top players are already plying their trade in county cricket, while others have full-time jobs which they may not wish to give up. The actual number of players that the coach will want to put on a full-time contract, or else the number that even want to have one, may not be that many."
The other quandary is how to get them fixtures. Kenya, widely regarded as the leading Associate, have found it almost impossible to get Full Member countries to visit or host them. As a result they invariably play other Associates. Good for the win-loss ratio, not so clever in providing the kind of experience that no amount of money can buy.
These issues will need to be addressed, but for now the future has never looked so promising beyond the Test world.
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