The ICC's decision to restrict the number of teams in the 2015 World Cup has evoked mixed responses, with opinion divided among players of the full member teams. Not
surprisingly, the associate members aren’t too thrilled about the idea of being kept out of cricket's showpiece event.
In a bid to placate the associate members, the ICC has decided to increase the number of participating teams to 16 in the Twenty20 World Cups, as the game's governing body feels these countries will have a greater chance of competing on an equal footing in cricket's shortest format.
To be fair to the ICC, criticism of the move to restrict the number of teams in the next edition of the Cup is a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't. It is convenient
just now to forget that in the last edition of the tournament, considerable criticism was heaped on the governing body for the inordinate length of the tournament, thanks in
large part to the presence of the associates. A cricket writer with a sense of humor – Rahul Bhattacharya, to give him a name – was once moved to write that for all we know, the 2007 World Cup is still going on in the Caribbean someplace.
And the associate members haven't really helped their cause in the 2011 edition either, at least thus far. Netherlands put up a brave fight against England in their first match,
but have been crushed by West Indies and South Africa in their next two games. Canada and Kenya have hardly had any moments to speak of, and if you judged the merits of the associate nations' case on the basis of these performances, the ICC's decision stands vindicated.
There remains, though, the question of Ireland, who imploded against Bangladesh but bounced back to hunt down the target of 328 set them by the English, resulting in the biggest upset of the tournament thus far.
Since their debut in the 2007 World Cup, Ireland has impressed for the most part against full member nations, while Netherlands have had their shining moments in international cricket. But Kenya's story is one that needs to be looked at as a case study not only for the ICC, but also for the full members. From being a semi-finalist in the 2003 World Cup to now being reduced to only making up the numbers, Kenya's fall from grace has been spectacular because of both internal and external factors.
One of the reasons the associate members or "minnows" are unable to compete on an equal footing or sustain their momentum in ODIs is because they hardly ever play against the full members. Confining them to Tier 2 for four years, and then expecting them to show up on the World Stage and remain competitive is illogical, even absurd. This is where the ICC needs to step in, to mandate that the full nations need at the very least to send their 'A' teams, if not the main squads, to play some matches with the associate members around the world on a regular basis. For instance, though Ireland is 10th in the ICC ODI rankings, they have hardly played the full members since the 2007 World Cup, and this is bound to affect the associate members' performances.
Another factor the associate members have to deal with is the lack of infrastructure and proper coaching facilities. This is another area the ICC has been addressing, but it
needs to work more closely with these countries. There is also a wide difference between the domestic leagues of the associate members and international cricket, and the ICC could ask the full members to send some of their players in the broader national pool to play in these leagues and mentor their counterparts. Most players in associate members are part-time cricketers, and eventually this would need to change, but it can only happen if cricket is seen as a sustainable source of income.
Coming back to the 2015 World Cup and the qualification process for the same, the ICC could give direct entry to the top seven ranked teams on a certain cut-off date,
hypothetically say June 2012. The eighth and the ninth ranked teams go into a qualification tournament along with for example, Ireland, Netherlands, Afghanistan and three other associate members, which would have to be determined by the ICC. These eight countries would then square off and the finalists as well as the winner of the third place play-off would qualify for the 2015 World Cup.
If these three countries include one or more associate members, so be it, because let's face it, everybody loves watching the underdog upset the favourite, and while there have been a few examples over the previous World Cups, the most recent instance when Ireland defied the odds and stunned England is reason enough to suggest that associate members need to be part of future 50-over World Cups.
The views expressed above are the views of the author, and not the ICC.