The calls for Associate nations to get more opportunities at global events are now ubiquitous. The associate nations do well in every single ICC tournament and the great and the good of cricket question the logic behind restricting their involvement. This week Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Michael Vaughan were among those who called for a rethink on the ICC’s attitude towards Associate cricket.
The excuse that is used most often to justify the limited chances Associate nations get at global events is that they will not be competitive. This myth continues to be perpetuated despite the fact that Associate nations have been winning at World Cups and World T20s since 2003. The argument that every team at a World Cup needs to be competitive is a questionable one but in the case of Associate nations it just isn’t true that they are poor teams. Afghanistan’s win against the West Indies is just the latest example of that.
As Afghanistan’s spin bowlers finished off their impressive tournament by tying the West Indies batsmen into knots, their victory wasn’t a surprise. They have competed against every team that they played and but for a brain fart against England they would have won two matches against full-member teams, not just one.
Afghanistan finished the World T20 with five bowlers with an economy rate of less than seven. The-oh-so-wily Mohammad Nabi conceded just 6.07 runs per over in the tournament with an average of 13. Rashid Khan, Afghanistan’s very old looking 17-year-old, was a revelation as he finished with 11 wickets at an average of 16.
While Afghanistan were the best Associate nation on show at this event, they are not dominating the game at that level. There has never been a time when Associate cricket has been stronger.
Afghanistan finished fifth in the World T20 qualifiers in Scotland and Ireland last summer. At no point in the history of the game has there been so many professional teams capable of performing at a high level. Still the ICC board insists that the 2019 World Cup is stronger by having just 10 teams involved.
Against the West Indies, it was Najibullah Zadran who pushed Afghanistan onto a winning total but throughout the event there were others. One of the more impressive developments that this team have made in recent times is the ability to recover from the loss of early wickets or batsmen departing in clusters. In the past Afghanistan have folded when their top order failed, now someone lower down is capable of holding things together before pushing on.
In the win against Zimbabwe that got them into the main draw, the men that did the steadying job were Samiullah Shenwari and Mohammad Nabi, at other times it has been Gulbadin Naib and Moor Ali Zadran. It is this middle-order rigidity that can turn Afghanistan from an exciting team of characters into a side that can regularly compete at the highest level.
As Afghanistan celebrated their win against the West Indies with their version of Dwayne Bravo’s “Champion” dance, joined by Chris Gayle, the absolute joy that they were experiencing dragged you in. It was a win for every cricket fan and a moment that will resonate long after everyone has packed up and gone home.
But for all of that it is still tinged with sadness, and that stems from the fact that it won’t really make that much difference. The attitude towards expansion of the game at the highest level of cricket administration is so entrenched the men in charge of the world game aren’t going to throw the doors open because Afghanistan beat the West Indies.
If that were true the change would have already happened when Kenya made a World Cup semi-final in 2003, or when Ireland got further at the 2007 World Cup than India and Pakistan, or when England lost to the Dutch for the second time at a World T20.
We are told that the restriction of the expansionist agenda is because teams aren’t competitive but that is a lie. The reason why Afghanistan will continue to fight for involvement despite their successes is because there is a danger that allowing them into the main draw could cause an upset.
Ever since India and Pakistan were eliminated early from the 2007 World Cup the cricketing authorities have been terrified of a repeat. If cost them millions in TV revenues. While any sport needs money to survive if you are finding ways to engineer out upsets from your biggest tournaments because you might earn less you need ask the question that Gideon Haigh put so eloquently; Does cricket exist to make money or does it make money to exist?
Afghanistan have toppled a full member after a brilliant World T20, and it is so important to remember that, but it is impossible to divorce that achievement from the bleak reality of the world in which it happened.
As things stand they have two confirmed fixtures for the rest of the year, although it seems there will be three ODIs in Pakistan in April and Irish cricket writer Ian Callender reported that there is an announcement due shortly of five ODIs against Ireland in July. Even with those added games that brings the total up to 11 matches in nine months. Contrast that with England who will play 14 Tests, 13 ODIs and two T20Is between now and the end of 2016.
Some would argue that increased fixtures is the real goal, not World Cup involvement but it is not a zero sum game. You don’t have to have one without the other. What this World T20 has shown us yet again is the power of global events to generate coverage for Associate cricket but more than that giving young players the dream of a World Cup appearance makes involvement in the game all the more appealing.
This week Peter Borren, captain of the Netherlands team, told me that he sees talented cricketers walking away from the sport in his country because the opportunities to actually play are so rare.
Cricket loses out because even after we have watched Afghanistan compete and win at this World T20 they are still not embraced by the sport that they love. Asghar Stanikzai’s side have done everything they can on and off the field to prove that they belong. What more does cricket want from them?