The World Cup showed that Associates have not kept up in T20 - because they're playing too few games

The pandemic is partly to blame, but what they really need to raise their level is many more fixtures

Tim Wigmore
Tim Wigmore
In their maiden T20 World Cup campaign, Namibia won three games and qualified for the Super 12s  •  ICC via Getty

In their maiden T20 World Cup campaign, Namibia won three games and qualified for the Super 12s  •  ICC via Getty

T20 is cricket's globalisation tool, as the ICC endlessly reminds us. The 2021 World Cup has not given reason to reassess that view, but for advocates of cricket's expansionism, the Associates' performances in the tournament have been a little disconcerting.
Ultimately the best day for the emerging world was the tournament's very first, when Scotland recovered from 53 for 6 to defeat Bangladesh by six runs in Muscat. The only other Associate scalp against a Full Member came when Namibia defeated Ireland to progress to the Super 12s. The closest that Scotland or Namibia got to a victory in their eight games against Full Members in that stage of the tournament was Scotland's 16-run defeat to New Zealand.
These performances amount to a regression from the Associates' displays in the 2014 and 2016 T20 World Cups. In the first round of the 2014 tournament, Hong Kong defeated Bangladesh and Ireland beat Zimbabwe. Then, in the second round, Netherlands thrashed England by 45 runs and lost by only six runs to South Africa. Two years later, Afghanistan easily beat Zimbabwe to reach the Super 10s. There, they beat eventual winners West Indies, and had England at 57 for 6, before losing by 15 runs.
Associate nations have been more greatly impacted by Covid-19 than anyone else in elite cricket. Most Associates essentially played no international matches for 18 months until September this year. Scotland, often considered the leading Associate, put their players on furlough to save money; Chris Greaves, the Player of the Match against Bangladesh in the 2021 World Cup, spent the start of the year delivering parcels for Amazon. Nearly two months of playing in the UAE was particularly challenging for many of these players, who had never experienced intensive bubble life like this before.
While these short-term encumbrances explain emerging nations' challenges this year, there are other forces at work. The greatest is simply the evolution of T20. Since the last World Cup, there have been six editions of the IPL, but Associate players rarely feature in the league, and have scant experience in other major franchise tournaments.
Even allowing for the profound difficulties caused by the pandemic, Associates are better T20 sides than five years ago. The problem is, so are the teams ranked above them. From 2010-15, the nine leading Full Members - those part of the World Test Championship - played 2.6 ODIs for every T20I. Since 2016, they have played only 1.2 ODIs for every T20I.
In T20 World Cups, Associate teams used to have a curious advantage. They had greater knowledge about their opponents, because while video footage and data from games between Test teams was readily accessible, information about the Associate world was comparatively hard to find. In this World Cup, the sight of two fielders routinely placed to protect the boundary from George Munsey's reverse sweeps attests to how Test teams have become shrewder in their planning against Associates.
But the biggest issue for Associate teams is simply their paucity of fixtures compared to Test sides.
The same was long true in ODIs before the Cricket World Cup League 2 guaranteed leading Associates 36 ODIs between the 2019 and 2023 World Cups. The upshot is that the gulf in playing experience between emerging nations and Full Members is now greater in T20 than 50-over cricket.
Leading T20 players play around 50 matches a year, spread across international cricket and leagues. Between the World Cup qualifiers in 2019 and the 2021 World Cup, Namibia's captain, Gerhard Erasmus, only played 11 T20s, and Kyle Coetzer, Scotland's captain, five.
Ostensibly T20 is the format best suited to emerging sides, but the assumption that this is automatically true is a lazy one. Ireland have defeated both England and South Africa in the ODI Super League, but the World Cup has highlighted that their T20I side is altogether less advanced.
Scotland's run in ODI cricket in 2017-18, when they defeated England, Afghanistan and came within six runs of defeating West Indies and nearly qualifying for the 2019 World Cup, exceeds any streak they have put together against top ten nations in T20I cricket.
And so the T20 World Cup results should prompt serious thought about how to close the gap between emerging nations and leading Full Members in the format. More bilateral matches between Test teams and Associates would obviously help; how to fit them into the calendar is another matter.
Creative thinking could help accelerate Associates' T20 development. In women's cricket, the ICC has previously funded contracts for Associate players in the Women's Big Bash. A partnership that allowed, say, 20 leading Associate players to train with teams in the IPL and Big Bash would help them tap into the networks, knowledge-sharing and cutting-edge thinking happening in the format. Including Associates in domestic T20 competitions, like the T20 Blast and Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, and giving them more cricket against A teams from leading nations would be a boon. All of this will require goodwill from Full Members - and extra funding during the 2024-31 ICC cycle.
From 2024, the men's T20 World Cup will expand to 20 teams, with the unwieldy first round abolished. For the first time in history, cricket will get a World Cup that, in its scope, will feel like a global affair to rival those in football or basketball.
It is an unprecedented opportunity to turbocharge cricket's growth. But the events of the last month in the UAE should serve as a reminder. More teams in the World Cup may be necessary to globalise the sport, yet what happens between World Cups is just as important.

Tim Wigmore is a sports writer for the Daily Telegraph and the co-author of Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution, the Wisden Book of the Year for 2020