Why this year's Associate crop is the best ever

The ICC deserves credit for helping weaker teams prepare better for this World Cup - though the Big Three are threatening to undo all the good work that has been put in

Tim Wigmore
Tim Wigmore
George Dockrell rejoices after having Solomon Mire caught for 11, Ireland v Zimbabwe, World Cup 2015, Group B, Hobart, March 7, 2015

Ireland have been trendsetters not just on the field, but also with the way the game is administered in their country  •  Getty Images

The clarion cries to keep the "world" in the World Cup were largely absent four years ago. And the sea change has been driven by the ICC.
If few organisations are more castigated than the ICC, perhaps even fewer are less understood. The decision to contract the 2019 and 2023 World Cups to ten teams is the will of the ICC Executive Committee - in reality, Giles Clarke, N Srinivasan and Wally Edwards. Yet the ICC is brimming with employees who look at the plans no more favourably than the Twitterati do, and are zealous in their commitment to the organisation's creed of building "a bigger, better, global game".
The 2015 World Cup has provided much vindication for their work. While, just as in the 2011 World Cup, Ireland have been the flag bearers for those who want cricket to be more than a ten-nation game, the real story has been the improvement in the other three Associates.
They often made for unpalatable viewing in 2011. Netherlands (who did push England hard in their opening game) lost by 215 runs to West Indies and 231 runs to South Africa, and were bowled out for 160 in their six-wicket loss to Bangladesh. Canada lost by 210 runs to Sri Lanka and by 175 runs to Zimbabwe. Worst of all were Kenya, who were bundled out for 69 in their ten-wicket thumping by New Zealand, and then lost by 205 runs to Pakistan, nine wickets to Sri Lanka, and 161 runs to Zimbabwe. Few were willing to argue that this trio added to the spectacle of the tournament.
So there was plenty for the ICC to review when it analysed the performances of the four qualifiers in 2011. "We looked at 50 or 60 different factors across everything from administration to domestic structures to the support around the team," explains Richard Done, the ICC high performance manager.
Ireland were regarded as the model, and not just on the pitch. They had "the best structure, the best administration, the best support staff and the best coaches". Done endeavoured to import these standards into other leading Associates. "Over the last four years we've really worked hard on the quality of the people. We've got a better group of CEOs."
Until 2011, most leading Associates were pop-up cricket teams. Besides the World Cup and the qualifying tournament, many had no other guaranteed one-day cricket. That changed during the latest World Cup cycle: the World Cricket League Championship gave Associates 14 games against each other between June 2011 and November 2013, providing a constant focus and a barometer of their progress. It also gave Associates a pathway to World Cup qualification, with Afghanistan and Ireland securing the two automatic berths to the World Cup.
Qualification for the 2011 World Cup was determined exclusively by a tournament in South Africa in April 2009. This was deeply unsatisfactory for two reasons. Firstly, the four qualifiers in 2009 were probably not the best four Associates by 2011; Afghanistan "may well have made it," had the qualifier been a year later, Done notes. Secondly, conditions in South Africa did not much resemble those in the World Cup in Asia. Judiciously, the tournament to determine the final two qualifiers for the 2015 World Cup, alongside Afghanistan and Ireland, was held in New Zealand last January. "It certainly helped getting some experience on the wickets," says David East, the chief executive of the Emirates Cricket Board.
The challenge now was to ensure the four qualifiers would provide the ICC with more to show for its work in expanding cricket beyond its traditional frontiers than in previous tournaments. At a meeting of the ICC High Performance Programme in 2013, a target of four wins for Associates over Full Members - three more than in 2011 - was set.
An extra $1 million was released to help the four qualifiers prepare. The bulk was spent arranging tours to Australia and New Zealand between September and November. All four qualifiers played seven or eight matches against state, district or representative sides, including at venues they would play at in the tournament.
"There's no experience like playing against good teams in the specific conditions that you're going to be playing in in the World Cup," says Warren Deutrom, the chief executive of Cricket Ireland. "It certainly helped our guys visualise what they could expect when it came to the matches themselves." Camps were then arranged for all four teams in November in Dubai, to review the tours and work with specialist coaches like Paul Collingwood.
In 2011, none of the Associates were fully professional (Ireland, with 13 professionals, came closest.) But in 2015, three have fully professional squads. UAE are the exception, but it is not quite accurate to label them a team of amateurs. UAE introduced player support agreements for 20 players in preparation for the World Cup, providing coaching staff with far greater access to the players in the nine months prior to the World Cup.
They also recruited a strength and conditioning coach. "This improvement in fitness and agility has arguably been the biggest, most important difference to the professionalism of the team," East believes. Indeed, better fielding has been a hallmark of all Associates this tournament. "If you were to compare the Associate sides this time round to the Associates in the past, you can see the quality of fielding has really picked up," Deutrom says.
Increased funding for top Associates has helped this cause. Since the last World Cup, the ICC has tweaked its funding model for Associates to target the more successful nations, which have received around 20% more in real terms than in the previous four-year cycle.
But most important has been the introduction of the Targeted Assistance Performance Programme (TAPP), a fund created in 2012 to boost the competitiveness of Associates and the lower-ranked Full Members. The fund paid for Ireland to set up its new inter-provincial structure in 2013, providing players not involved in county cricket with strong domestic competition in all three formats of the game. TAPP also bankrolled a new academy in Afghanistan.
It has funded playing opportunities for Associates, like Ireland's tour of the West Indies last January, and Afghanistan's four-match ODI series in Zimbabwe in July. It also funded New Zealand A's tour of UAE last winter, when they played Afghanistan, Ireland and the hosts. Lindsay Crocker, New Zealand Cricket's head of cricket, credits TAPP as being "essential" in helping emerging talents like Adam Milne be "schooled" before playing international cricket.
The New Zealand A games against the Associates were mutually beneficial: Andy Balbirnie's 129 against an attack including two members of New Zealand's World Cup squad sealed his Ireland berth. However, as part of the Big Three's drive to reduce spending on ICC development programmes, TAPP was scrapped after the restructuring of the ICC last year. "It's a worry if TAPP funding isn't going to continue," Deutrom says.
Although Done admits that more competition between Associates and Full Members would have helped - Ireland played only eight ODIs against Test teams between the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, and Bangladesh and Zimbabwe declined to take part in a pre-World Cup tournament with the Associates in the UAE - the four qualifiers for the 2015 World Cup were comfortably the best prepared in the tournament's history.
With every passing world event the trends point to Associates becoming more competitive still. The ICC only developed an interest in expansionism in the mid-1990s. Only now is the first generation of cricketers to develop since then benefiting from much-improved domestic structures. Most importantly, there are a lot more of them. Since 2005, official participation numbers in cricket have risen six-fold in the UAE, quadrupled in Ireland and Scotland, and risen by 30 times in Afghanistan.
So while David Richardson described "relief" at the performance of the Associates in the World Cup, those in the ICC who follow them more closely do not share his feelings. "I haven't been surprised at all. What we've shown in terms of competitiveness generally has been exactly what I hoped for," Done says, noting that the Associates also toppled three Full Members in the 2014 World T20. "We've had four or five really good opportunities to secure more wins and just haven't got across the line. We'd all be a bit disappointed as a collective."
Still, that the Associates' showing this World Cup has converted so many to their cause amounts to that rarest of things: a triumph for the ICC. It only makes the will of Australia, England and India to contract the World Cup look more myopic.

Tim Wigmore is a co-author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts