Re­strict­ing tour­na­ment to ten-team shoot-out is folly

Help­ing the smaller coun­tries sur­vive in the long-term should be ICC’s next move

The Herald - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - NEIL DRYS­DALE

MOST sports gov­ern­ing bod­ies love talk­ing about devel­op­ment and ex­pan­sion, even if they only pay lip ser­vice to the con­cept.

In foot­ball, for in­stance, the World Cup has dou­bled in size since the days when Bobby Moore lifted the tro­phy, while the next Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship will have 24 teams.

More games, more rev­enue from TV broad­cast­ers, more fans in dif­fer­ent parts of the con­ti­nent . . . even if it might di­lute the qual­ity a lit­tle, you can un­der­stand why the pan­jan­drums keep say­ing big­ger is bet­ter.

Cricket, though, seems to live in a par­al­lel uni­verse, judg­ing by re­cent de­vel­op­ments. In 1975, when the game launched its first World Cup, there were eight na­tions in­volved in­clud­ing East Africa: this was in the days when South Africa’s apartheid sys­tem meant it was os­tracised from in­ter­na­tional sport­ing com­pe­ti­tion, and while Zim­babwe was still known as Rhode­sia. Since then, there have been a range of for­mats for the global event, and fleet­ing suc­cess for some of the lesser na­tions, in­clud­ing Kenya in 2003, but the tour­na­ment has in­vari­ably strug­gled to move be­yond its tra­di­tional heart­lands.

One might sup­pose the so­lu­tion was to in­vest more in the grass­roots and re­ward those who thrive. And, to some ex­tent, the ICC did that on Wed­nes­day when it an­nounced that Ire­land and Afghanistan were be­ing granted the chance to qual­ify au­to­mat­i­cally for the 2019 event. But, in the same me­dia re­lease, they also con­firmed the next World Cup will only fea­ture ten teams, two fewer than in the im­mi­nent 2015 fes­ti­val in Aus­trala­sia.

Frankly, this de­ci­sion makes no sense what­so­ever. For the last two decades, the ICC has ploughed money into its as­so­ciate membership and nur­tured cricket across the planet.

In some places, the process has worked about as well as Nigel Farage ar­rang­ing a speech at the Not­ting Hill Car­ni­val. The USA is ap­par­ently still con­vinced that, as the late Robin Wil­liams once re­marked, it is “base­ball on val­ium”.

The Kenyans have gone down­hill fast in the last decade, the Dutch have plum­meted from beat­ing Eng­land in a World T20 con­test to fail­ing to qual­ify for the 2015 World Cup, and Scot­land have toiled to live up to the ex­alted stan­dards they set in win­ning the 2005 ICC Tro­phy, although they are mov­ing for­ward with a spring in their step again en route to New Zealand.

But there have also been suc­cess sto­ries, with the Ir­ish beat­ing Pak­istan and Eng­land at dif­fer­ent World Cups and one or two of the other so-called “min­nows” en­joy­ing spells of suc­cess against the ICC full mem­bers. The re­al­ity is that new stars don’t emerge overnight, this isn’t the X Fac­tor but a sport that re­quires decades of en­cour­age­ment, al­lied to the cre­ation of ju­nior pro­grammes, a phi­los­o­phy of preach­ing to the un­con­verted, and al­low­ing de­vel­op­ing coun­tries to cre­ate the cor­rect in­fra­struc­ture and fa­cil­i­ties (and at­tract spon­sors and me­dia cov­er­age) in their home­land.

This sim­ply won’t hap­pen if the ICC re­strict the World Cup to a ten-team shoot-out. In­deed, as things stand, they are ef­fec­tively ad­mit­ting that the con­tro­ver­sial ad­mis­sion of Bangladesh to the Test cir­cuit in 2000 was a pre­ma­ture act of folly that has yielded no pos­i­tive re­ward. Zim­babwe too, one of the sup­posed elite, have achieved pre­cisely noth­ing in re­cent years, while, on the ev­i­dence of In­dia’s re­sults in the last cal­en­dar year, even for­mer gi­ants – and reign­ing world cham­pi­ons – are in dan­ger of be­com­ing whip­ping boys.

Cricket can’t af­ford to stand still, or nar­row its hori­zons. It needs to ac­cept there are too many Twenty20 events and not enough fo­cus on coun­tries rather than short-term fran­chises.

But the au­thor­i­ties ap­pear trans­fixed by the wham-bam phe­nom­e­non and ticked off with 50-over ODIs. This is en­tirely the wrong em­pha­sis. The only way to help the as­so­ciate mem­bers is to ex­pose them to more regular in­ter­ac­tion with the cream. Yes, they will suf­fer some hor­ri­ble de­feats. Yes, it might be painful on and off the field. But even­tu­ally, as the Ir­ish have shown, the best of the new­com­ers will get their act to­gether and face down the su­per­pow­ers.

Rugby is spread­ing its gospel into Rus­sia, into China, wher­ever there is any in­ter­est in rucks and mauls. Foot­ball, for all its faults and cor­rupt stew­ard­ship, is soar­ing in pop­u­lar­ity in Asia, Africa and North Amer­ica.

How dare cricket, which has al­ways been an ac­tiv­ity con­fined to a small clique, at­tempt to limit its hori­zons and turn back the clock?

Pic­ture: Getty Images

PUNCH­ING ABOVE THEIR WEIGHT: The O’Brien broth­ers have led Ire­land to fa­mous wins at the 2011 and 2015 World Cups but the tour­na­ment is shrink­ing when it should be grow­ing

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