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.
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.
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.