Desert T20 has show­cased ex­cel­lence of sec­ond tier

Tim Wig­more be­lieves the T20 spec­tac­u­lar cur­rently tak­ing place in the Gulf can be a ma­jor boost for Tier Two na­tions

The Cricket Paper - - ASSOCIATES NATIONS -

As with all the best ideas, in hind­sight, the won­der of the Desert T20 tour­na­ment is that it has taken so long to come about.

This year’s in­au­gu­ral tour­na­ment, which con­cludes with fi­nals day to­mor­row, fol­lows a re­fresh­ingly sim­ple for­mat: two groups of four, with the top two na­tions in each ad­vanc­ing to the semi-fi­nals. As such, ev­ery match mat­ters, and, in a age marked by bloated sports tour­na­ments, it will be all over and done within eight days.

So far, the tour­na­ment has high­lighted much of the best of As­so­ciate cricket. It has reaf­firmed that T20 is the best av­enue for the glob­al­i­sa­tion of the sport, although this should be seen as a gate­way to the other for­mats, not com­ing at the ex­pense of them.

It has shown that As­so­ciates are ca­pa­ble of some won­der­ful cricket in the for­mat but, more than any­thing, it has served as af­fir­ma­tion of the bur­geon­ing depth of their cricket.

It of­ten seems to be thought, not least by cricket’s gov­ern­ing elite, that As­so­ciate cricket be­gins and ends with Afghanistan and Ire­land. The no­tion, if it was ever true, is badly dated. In the 2015 World T20 qual­i­fiers, nei­ther of the gi­ants made the fi­nal. In 2016, Ire­land were top­pled by Oman in the World T20. While both qual­i­fied from their groups to make the semi-fi­nal of the Desert T20, Afghanistan could eas­ily have been beaten by the UAE, and Ire­land by Namibia.

Yet it was the other group, fea­tur­ing Hong Kong, Nether­lands, Oman and Scot­land, that re­ally show­cased the best of As­so­ciate cricket. Hong Kong, the Pak­istan of the As­so­ciate world, re­sponded to a thump­ing de­feat by Oman by thrash­ing, and elim­i­nat­ing, the Dutch, who have beaten Eng­land two times out of two in the WT20. All of this goes to show what As­so­ciate cricket can bring to the global game. The first Desert T20 should just be the start.

The tour­na­ment, brain­child of Will Kitchen, ICC Acad­emy gen­eral man­ager and per­for­mance man­ager for UAE cricket and the ICC’s high per­for­mance pro­gramme, is fun­da­men­tally an at­tempt to rem­edy the As­so­ciates’ crip­pling lack of cricket, es­pe­cially for those be­yond Afghanistan and Ire­land.

The Nether­lands’ un­der­whelm­ing per­for­mances can some­what be ex­plained away by their de­risory sched­ule – just three in­ter­na­tion­als – in the ten months since they were elim­i­nated in the first stage of the WT20 last year. Ul­ti­mately, in­ter­na­tional crick­eters can only im­prove so much with­out ac­tu­ally play­ing.

This tour­na­ment also amounts to a break from the cut-throat world of As­so­ciate cricket, in which vir­tu­ally all matches count to­wards qual­i­fi­ca­tion for world events or fund­ing that, in prac­tice, of­ten de­ter­mines whether or not play­ers can re­main pro­fes­sional. The Desert T20 is dif­fer­ent – there is a tro­phy to be won and, while all sides are des­per­ate to lift it, the na­ture of the tour­na­ment also en­ables sides to ex­per­i­ment a lit­tle, and in­tro­duce young play­ers to build for the long-term.

Un­like in nor­mal ICC events, the losers do not face crip­pling the fu­ture of the sport in their coun­try.

But there is much more that should be done. For a start, the tour­na­ment should be streamed. Be­cause of the com­plex na­ture of the ICC’s com­mer­cial rights deals, and the rather last-minute na­ture of the tour­na­ment – the sched­ule was only fi­nalised a fort­night be­fore the open­ing game – no live-stream­ing was pos­si­ble.

That is a deep shame, given the pop­u­lar­ity of re­cent As­so­ciate T20 events – the first stage of the 2016 WT20 and the qual­i­fiers – which was so great that it sur­prised many in the ICC.

But it is likely that the tour­na­ment will be­come an an­nual event and in fu­ture all games will be live-streamed. If it is pro­moted well, then the As­so­ciates T20 could be­come not merely a ve­hi­cle for As­so­ciates to gain much-needed match time against each other, but also to pro­mote the sport.

Ul­ti­mately, it should be seen as an event for the As­so­ciates to gen­er­ate money for them­selves, which they can then in­vest into grow­ing the game in their coun­tries. Un­til a few years ago, the WT20 qual­i­fiers were sub­sidised by the ICC, but they are now con­sid­ered a suf­fi­ciently at­trac­tive prospect as to make money in their own right, show­ing what is pos­si­ble.

Ide­ally, the As­so­ciates T20 event would take place twice ev­ery year – per­haps once in the UAE, with the other event mov­ing be­tween dif­fer­ent na­tions. It is not as if the time to do this does not ex­ist: even with sev­eral days of prepa­ra­tion time, teams will re­turn home a fort­night after leav­ing.

Two tour­na­ments a year would en­able the tour­na­ment to gen­er­ate a nar­ra­tive of its own, just like the trav­el­ling rugby Sev­ens tour­na­ment, which should be the model. Ri­val­ries and his­tory would de­velop, while spon­sors and com­mer­cial part­ners would gain cer­tainty about the event and its place in the crick­et­ing cal­en­dar. In time, per­haps the weaker Full Mem­bers – above all Bangladesh and Zim­babwe, who both re­jected in­vites for this year’s Desert T20 – could be per­suaded to join, too.

A num­ber of Full Mem­ber A sides have also ex­pressed an in­ter­est in send­ing teams to fu­ture edi­tions, though it is a tricky sub­ject: is As­so­ciate cricket un­der­mined by al­low­ing tour­na­ments to fea­ture rep­re­sen­ta­tive teams, rather than full na­tional sides, from other coun­tries?

And, I un­der­stand that there are plans for the Desert T20 for­mat to be mir­rored at 50-over level, too. This would also be over­due: it would pro­vide much-needed com­pet­i­tive 50-over cricket for the top As­so­ciates, and also, cru­cially, en­sure that ODIs are played be­tween Afghanistan and Ire­land and the next batch of As­so­ciates, some­thing that has not hap­pened at all since the two were el­e­vated to the elite 12-team ODI struc­ture in 2012.

Just as Afghanistan and Ire­land need to play against sides ranked above them to im­prove, so the same is true for Hong Kong, Nether­lands, Pa­pua New Guinea, Scot­land and other top As­so­ciates, which is why ODIs against Afghanistan and Ire­land would be so sig­nif­i­cant.

A new 50-over As­so­ciates com­pe­ti­tion would also help to pre­vent emerg­ing na­tions from pri­ori­tis­ing T20 cricket at the ex­pense of other for­mats, and thereby adding to the case for the World Cup to be ex­panded be­yond 10 teams. The lead­ing As­so­ciate coun­tries and play­ers are com­mit­ted to ODIs, but while they play so lit­tle of it – 14 matches be­tween 2015 and the end of 2017 in the WCL Cham­pi­onship – they scarcely have the chance to im­prove.

So plan­ning for the Desert T20 to be­come an an­nual – or bian­nual – event, while in­tro­duc­ing a 50-over tour­na­ment along the same lines, will give As­so­ciates the best chance of top­pling Full Mem­bers when given the chance.

More im­por­tantly, it al­lows top As­so­ciate play­ers the chance to im­prove, and the As­so­ciate game to gain new pro­file – not merely as an ad­junct to games be­tween Test na­tions, but as en­gross­ing, mean­ing­ful sport in its own right.

Ide­ally, the As­so­ciates T20 event would take place twice a year – per­haps once in the UAE, the other mov­ing around be­tween the na­tions

PIC­TURE: Getty Im­ages

Tar­tan ti­tans: Con de Lange, of Scot­land, cel­e­brates the wicket of Nether­lands’ Michael Rip­pon dur­ing the Desert T20

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