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News Analysis

The Ireland and Afghanistan domino effect

Both countries being awarded Test status is as much about restrictions lifted as about opportunities gained

Will Afghanistan play their first Test in 2017?  •  Associated Press

Will Afghanistan play their first Test in 2017?  •  Associated Press

The elevation of Ireland and Afghanistan as Full Members is the crowning achievement after a trail-blazing decade for both countries. It's a celebration of their hard work on the field, but also about yeoman's work off the field by both administrations. The boards have supplemented historic performances with enhanced infrastructure, and multi-day competitions that have been awarded first-class status.
In spite of now being part of the Test family, there are no guarantees for extra exposure by way of matches.
One just has to look at the struggles over the years of Bangladesh and Zimbabwe to fill their skin-and-bones body of fixtures, where others have far meatier calendars, to know that Ireland and Afghanistan will not gain instant Test nourishment.
Zimbabwe's first Test, at home against India in 1992, was one of four they played in the first 12 months of their Test existence, along with two more at home against New Zealand and a reciprocal one-off trip to India. It took them another three years to record their maiden Test win, against Pakistan, in their 11th Test, and 20 more Tests after that for their second win, over India at home in 1998.
They followed that with their first away win, against Pakistan in Peshawar in their next Test. However, the only other team they have beaten besides India and Pakistan is Bangladesh, for a total of 11 wins in 101 matches.
Bangladesh, who played their first Test against India in Dhaka in 2000, had eight more through the end of 2001. But their on-field struggles were far greater. Though from a chronological standpoint their first win - against Zimbabwe in January 2005 - came just over four years after their inaugural Test, they took three times longer than Zimbabwe did in terms of matches played to record it.
Their first away win, and second overall, didn't come until they beat a heavily depleted West Indies side (most first-choice players were striking in a dispute with the WICB) in their 60th match, in 2009.
But a key mental hurdle has been erased. The significant bit is about the restrictions lifted as much as it is about opportunities gained. If Ireland and Afghanistan want, they can schedule five-Test series against each other every other home summer. The "Test" label also means the periodic exodus of homegrown Ireland players to England in pursuit of playing cricket at the highest level is now likely to occur less frequently, if at all.
The ripples of this decision of awarding Test status to both countries are first being felt in the ICC boardroom, where positions that had been held by Ireland as the representative of all Associates are now vacated. New blood will come in and new voices will have a chance to be heard. In the immediate term, that may happen with a particularly empathetic set of ears in Warren Deutrom, Ross McCollum and Shafiq Stanikzai, the men most familiar with the administrative struggles that Associates go through.
It's not just in the ICC boardroom that the domino effect is being felt, though, as their now former Associate brethren are impacted on the field in many ways. Since the 2005 ICC Trophy, the top six ranked Associates following the conclusion of the World Cup Qualifier hold ODI status. That is how Ireland (in 2005) and Afghanistan (in 2009) first gained ODI status. With both countries no longer part of the Associates pack, the door is open for two more Associates to potentially score more opportunities and recognition in limited-overs cricket, and just as significantly, prevents two others from possibly losing it.
It could ease some of the pressure on Scotland and Hong Kong, currently third and fourth on the WCL Championship table and ostensibly fifth and sixth among Associates in ODI cricket prior to Thursday's decision. This also brings renewed hope for Kenya and Nepal, who are just below them, while Canada and Oman, freshly promoted from WCL Division Three, can also have a crack at securing ODI status through the 2018 World Cup Qualifier.
But it's not all roses. Perhaps the biggest loser coming out of Thursday's announcements is Netherlands. The ICC, in line with its old tradition of moving goalposts, has scrapped the long-hyped Test challenge in 2018, and possibly the one proposed for 2022 as well. David Richardson, the ICC CEO, called it "unnecessary" now that Ireland and Afghanistan have been given Full Member status. He admitted in so many words that the proposition to play the lowest-ranked Full Member for a shot at provisional Test status was targeted for the two sides that now been given Test status.
Netherlands is currently next in line on the Intercontinental Cup table. They're placed third, 31 points behind second-placed Ireland, and have an outside chance to draw close should they secure a full 20 points when the two sides face off at Malahide in August. Similarly, Netherlands are right behind Ireland in one-day cricket by virtue of occupying the top spot on the WCL Championship table. But winning that competition may no longer guarantee a spot in the 13-team ODI league.
Richardson had stated earlier this year that the winner of the WCL Championship would be the 13th team in the proposed ODI league for 2023 World Cup qualification, but new details on Thursday showed the boardroom thinking had changed, with the 13th team possibly being decided by a rankings cut-off date ahead of a proposed start of the ODI league in 2020.
It means winning the WCL Championship in this cycle carries far less weight. Even finishing as the top Associate at the 2018 World Cup Qualifier might not be enough and there is the possibility of another WCL Championship cycle being squeezed in between the end of the qualifier and 2020 to determine the 13th team. While it's great news for a majority of Associates, the Dutch have every reason to grimace.
Funding is another area where the ICC has sent out mixed signals. Ireland and Afghanistan are both expected to have their current ICC distribution doubled to more than US$40 million each over an eight-year cycle. It's good for them, but that money is coming out of what had been allocated for all Associates and does not eat into distributions for their now fellow Full Members.
It's also worth noting that the ICC has furthered the notion that rules exist for some and not for others when it comes to certain demographics, to Afghanistan's benefit. Developing women's cricket was referenced by Cricket Ireland's Warren Deutrom as one of the 21 statutes that needed to be met in the application for Full Member status, and Ireland has made significant investments in this regard.
Afghanistan's administrators often pay lip service to prioritising the development of women's cricket, but there is scant evidence anything has come of it, and they have faced few, if any, sanctions as a result. Women's cricket in Afghanistan is a complicated matter, with various sensitivities at play that have slowed the pace of progress. But having obtained full membership without satisfying an obligation to fulfill a mandate for women's development, the ACB's hand is not about to be forced on the issue.
At the end of the day, it's a mixed bag for Associates. While Afghanistan and Ireland have received funding, the others have had their earnings chopped. Yet there is genuine hope that when an Associate country gets its administrative and on-field ducks in a row, there might be a path forward for them to aspire to.

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent. @PeterDellaPenna