Associate Cricket – New Teams, Old Fallacy

You will hardly find any cricket enthusiast around the globe who were not elated by the performances of Afghanistan and Oman in the recently concluded ICC WT20 2016. They were a spirited and passionate bunch, reminding us how the spirit of this game goes beyond notions of winning and losing. For many, the Associates fondly reminded us of a time when hitting a six or getting your elder brother out had more joy than all the material success you could possibly get. In the age of cold-hearted professionalism and oversold rivalries, they caught us like unanticipated freshness of an early summer rain. You can’t help yourself but to indulge in it. However, the saddest part of the whole story is how the cold-hearted professionalism wins more often than not and how money talks louder than passion. If you are still not aware, then newsflash: ICC has decided to scrape away any opportunity for the Associates to show their fearless skills and squeezed the door shut on their chance of participating in the 2019 50 overs World Cup in England. The proposed and accepted 10 team format, with the top 8 playing directly and the remaining 2 spots decided through qualifications, comes as a big blow to the non-test playing Associate nations who, once again, have to rebuild from scratch.

 

This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Bangladesh hovered over the same cricketing paradigm for 20 years. We gained associate status back in 1977.  Sri Lanka, who were yet to receive a full-time membership, toured us in 1978 and soon after, we started playing ICC tournaments. In a nutshell, it took us 20 years of cricket and winning the 6th ICC Trophy in Malaysia to catapult to an ODI status and, subsequently, the main event in 1999. This is similar to what Ireland and Afghanistan have gone through. They have paid their due in the divisional leagues, in the affiliate league and the associate tournaments. They also have gained ODI membership while the framework was expanded to a 12 member framework recently, but there is a stark contrast between the two stories. We are a test playing nation and a full-time member of ICC, how did that come to happen? If you think that has anything to do with the quality of cricket being played in Bangladesh at that time, I’m afraid you would be plain and simply wrong. When we gained our test status in 2000, our first class circuit was just a year old. Therefore, it was not the cricket, rather the politics behind the sport, the rising power of Asia and a friend in the form of ICC president named Jagmohan Dalmia.

A close look at the history of ICC full-time members would indicate a high exclusivity of the membership. Pakistan was granted test status in 1952 and there was a 30 year gap before Sri Lanka gained the next one. South Africa was re-admitted after the apartheid ban and Zimbabwe was just a bunch of farmers, coupled with semi professional cricketers and South African ex-pats. The change in guard of ICC and the rise of India as a powerhouse led to the inclusion of a densely populated Bangladesh, which would surely help increase the Asian market of consumption and adding a sure vote in ICC council against the colonial masters.

On the other side of the coin, Ireland is not profitable proposition, the Afghans do not even have a market. Netherlands? A general shrug and a meh. In fears of losing control of the share and the ridiculous excuse of diluting the quality of cricket, the governing body has kept the Associates at bay and the goal of expanding cricket globally rings hollow to the ears of the neutrals. It is rather the Associate’s bad luck that they came along when the ICC heavily divided between cliques of have and don’t haves. The old money of England and Australia has mixed with the even shinier coffers of India and the status-quo surely will not be changing any time soon. Therefore, the core problem is any narrative that addresses all excuses and worries of the cabal, because they are irrelevant and miss the basic point; good performance by the best of players in a country matters less in comparison to the total amount of cricket played – for leisure, for pleasure, for friendship or for exercise – and this is the essential heart of the matter. Sport, and in this case cricket, should be celebrated and played because the alternative for most of these countries is to go back to the mundane, the cruel and the struggle that you do not want to be a part of. All it takes is one look at Afghanistan.

A picture usually says a thousand words. This is Afghan kids playing cricket on snow.

For international sporting councils, who work to further the game by improving infrastructure and creating scopes for development in all parts of the globe, Afghanistan’s participation in cricket, or any sport in general, and the public rallying behind their team because it alleviates their worries and their fear is a goal definitely worth pursuing. It is all about investing in the creation of a culture that sustains. With greater Afghan, Irish, Omani or Dutch cricket, there are greater scopes of success trickling down into the grassroots, inspiring new talents to take up cricketing as a profession, or at least as a national responsibility, and forging pathways of development through establishing academies and employing coaching staffs – that is probably the least you can expect. The Irish 2007 CWC squad had players who were postman and bartenders. Before defeating Pakistan and be very well on their way to the Super 8s, their captain Trent Johnson rallied them by saying, “Do you lot want to f**king go back to that life?” It turned out they didn’t. At least, not for the next two weeks.

Cricket became popular in India, or in any other nation for that matter, not because it was profitable or it was diligently marketed by MBA graduates, and certainly not because the players were world class. It rather reached the pinnacle of popularity because it was played in the streets, in the backyards, in alleys, from morning through the evening, in scorching heat or in shivering cold – it never mattered where and when you played the sport as long you were playing it. International Cricket Council and the top tier execs are getting the causality of this equation wrong for quite some time now: Cricket does not solely exist to make large chunks of money; it makes money just to function.  Let cricket be encouraged to play all around the globe. Let the Associates in on bigger tournaments and more bilateral and trilateral series. It is important to let a child fall down and stand back up on its feet again. Similarly, the more you lose, the better you learn. It is high time we let the Associates enjoy the full spirit of cricket, without accounting for their wins and their losses and pushing them far behind in the name of quality – Cricket, the gentlemen’s game, was not meant to be for money and endorsements. The joy of seeing Afghanistan, Ireland, Oman and the other Associates in action is much more appealing than any ringside cheerleader or paid actors in stadium balconies.

It is time ICC realizes the value of sport