Last month, 16 Associate and Affiliate member nations of the International Cricket Council (ICC), competed against each other for the right to qualify for the 2012 Twenty20 World Cup to be hosted by Sri Lanka in September-October.
The 16 countries were Afghanistan, Netherlands, Canada, Papua New Guinea, Nepal, Hong Kong, Bermuda, Denmark, Namibia, Ireland, Scotland, Kenya, Italy, United States of America, Uganda and Oman with Afghanistan and Ireland qualifying for the Twenty20 World Cup.
The qualification process started in early 2012 with 81 member countries who had to gain promotion from their respective regional Division 3 to Division 1 before eventually booking their place in the World Twenty20 qualifier which was held in UAE. Breaking it down further, as Afghanistan, Ireland, Canada, Kenya, Netherlands and Scotland automatically qualified for the main qualifier, there was place only for 10 qualifiers from the regional Twenty20 tournaments that were played across Africa, Asia, Americas, East Asia and Pacific; and Europe.
This is in stark contrast to the soccer World Cup, which also has a long-drawn qualification process, but is more inclusive in that it gives ample opportunities to countries in their bid to qualify for the main tournament. And, there are regional tournaments in between the World Cups as well, that give the smaller countries the platform and opporunity to test themselves against the regional powers. While there certainly are lop-sided matches in these events, at least fans are able to support their national teams regularly; while players, coaches and the national federations have the incentive to continually strive for excellence.
Cricket, at the moment, is by no means even close enough to being a global sport; and while it could be argued that 81 countries participated in the Twenty20 World Cup qualifying rounds, that number doesn't exactly paint an accurate picture because most of them possibly don't have adequate infrastructure or equipment in place to support the growth of the sport. The credit for most of these countries' limited progress until now largely rests with a few individuals than either the ICC or the regional cricket boards.
There also is a question mark over the willingness of full members to help out the Associate and Affiliate nations in their region; and while the ICC is obviously doing its bit to an extent, there's a crying need for a lot more to be done.
The Twenty20 World Cup could easily have included at least six countries from the qualifiers, especially taking into consideration that Afghanistan and Ireland were always likely to be the two member nations to go through. Increasing the number of participating countries would only have extended the tournament by a few more days, but it would have been worth it taking the bigger picture into account of popularising the game in places where the sport is struggling to create a place for itself. One can't help but feel that a trick
has been missed yet again, especially taking into consideration the long duration of a tournament like the Indian Premier League.
At the very least, the ICC could have explored the possiblity of fielding an Associates XI as well as an Affiliates XI (from countries excluding Afghanistan and Ireland) in the 2012 Twenty20 World Cup to give an opportunity to the best of the rest to play on the global stage in front of packed stadiums and a worldwide television audience.
And, it doesn't paint a bright future for the future of Associates and Affiliates, that even Afghanistan and Ireland get exposed to the 'big boys' only in the World Cups. What's being done to give them and a few others the opportunity to frequently test their skills and improve their abilities by pitting themselves against the full members? Why aren't regional tournaments, that include full and Associates as well as Affiliates, part of the international cricket calendar?
Sport should never be made exclusive for a select few; one can only hope the ICC and its regional boards make cricket more inclusive sooner rather than later.
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