The International Cricket Council (ICC)'s decision to exclude associate nations from the 2015 World Cup in April had caused a lot of anger and frustration among the officials, players and fans of countries like Ireland and Netherlands who performed credibly in the 2011 edition of the tournament which was held in the sub-continent. But, now better sense seems to have prevailed in the game's governing body as the ICC's Executive Board in its ongoing annual conference at Hong Kong decided to overturn that decision and allow the associates to be part of the 2015 World Cup, which like the 2011 tournament, will have 14 participating teams.
"The ICC Board opted to retain the 14-team format that was used at the highly successful and universally acclaimed ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka with the 10 Full Members being joined by four Associate or Affiliate qualifiers," a statement from the governing body said on Tuesday.
The 2019 World Cup though will have only 10 teams, with the top eight ranked teams getting direct entry with the remaining two spots being filled through a qualification
tournament. This means that the two lowest-ranked full members in the ICC rankings face the realistic possibility of not being part of a World Cup for the first time. The decision though encourages the lower-ranked full members to pull up their socks after the 2015 World Cup and improve their own skill sets with the aim of getting one of those direct qualification spots for the 2019 edition.
Coming back to the ICC's decision to continue with the 14-team format in the 2015 World Cup; Ireland and Netherlands, who were the best of the associate nations on display, and even outshone the likes of full members like Zimbabwe and Bangladesh on occasion deserve the chance to showcase their abilities in front of a global audience again; especially as the 2012 and 2014 Twenty20 World Cups will have only 12 teams instead of 16, and the associate and affiliate members are bound to raise this matter on the last day of the ICC annual conference in Hong Kong on June 30. The reduction of teams in the T20 World Cup defies logic and prevents more countries from experiencing the thrill of playing in a mainstream ICC tournament.
That said, as much as Ireland and Netherlands' performances in the 2011 World Cup strenghtened the case of the associates to be part of future World Cups, the disappointing displays by Kenya and Canada left a lot to be desired and gave the other side more than enough points to ensure these countries were excluded from the 50-over World Cups. But, it is certainly heartening to see the associates being part of the 2015 World Cup, and the onus is now not only on the ICC but also on the boards and players of the top and middle rung associate nations that they put their best foot forward in Australia and New Zealand.
The reversal of the decision also means that countries like UAE, Bermuda and Scotland get another chance to in the 50-over World Cup; while Afghanistan, Singapore or Hong Kong could hope to qualify for their first-ever appearence in the mega-event. The ICC Executive Board has ensured the associate and affiliate nations have a lot to play for in the various tournaments held for them in the run-up to the 2015 World Cup; but at the same time these countries, especially Ireland and Netherlands apart from two-three associates deserve to play a lot more at least against the 'A' teams of the full members. The top associate members like Ireland, Netherlands and Afghanistan also need to be given opportunities to play series around the world in the next two-three years; while the others need to be given opportunites to square off against at least Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, if nothing else, so that they can not only improve their skills level but also get a chance to play in different situations which in turn will help them put in improved performances in the 2015 World Cup and beyond.
Ireland, Netherlands and the other associate nations would do well not to go down the Kenya route. Kenya, who were shock semi-finalists in the 2003 World Cup, have seen their fortunes dip since then because of off-field issues which have also impacted their performances on the field, as was seen in the 2011 World Cup where they were outclassed by all their opponents in Group A.
The associates have got a World Cup lifeline and their presence will only boost the tournament, and while some of the matches involving them are likely to be lopsided, there is also the possibility of the full members being upset and humilated. Just ask England, India, Pakistan and West Indies! It is now up to the associates to give a good account of themselves in Australia and New Zealand in 2015, and one of these countries could very well emulate or better Kenya's achievement in 2003.