"I've been watching/ I've been waiting/ In the shadows for my time."
When The Rasmus crooned the lyrics of the now-famous number rather eloquently in 2003, one would not have been called eccentric for associating the song with the charge of the Kenyan cricket team, who had marched into the semi-finals of the World Cup after they defeated the Sri Lankans by 53 runs. Accorded ODI status in 1996, the Associate Team struggled hard to find their footing in international cricket and even though they did stage upset victories over India on two occasions since then, these had been few and sparse. But, that is what remains the beauty of sports. When pushed into the corner, with the world around containing zero to no expectations, the never-say-die attitude of the inexperienced players came to the fore in what was a memorable 2003 World Cup, and not just because India had found a place in the finals of the event.
The tournament, in more ways than one, highlighted the undying grit and the determination of each player who rises the ranks in nations where cricket is not even in the top five sports played across the said country. It displayed the innate passion of each player and their courageous determination to take up a sport professionally even though they know that the future might not be bright. The task of balancing out their part-time jobs and cricket, with equal focus on both, requires supreme mental toughness, and when success does arrive, the joy remains unparalleled indeed.
Ever since the International Cricket Council (ICC) made its intentions clear of playing the 2019 and the 2023 World Cup with 10 teams to make it an "evenly matched" contest, the global body has faced criticism from experts and former Associate players alike, who are of the view that such a step could go against ICC's policy of globalisation of cricket.
The ongoing World Cup Qualifiers, which will decide the final two spots for the World Cup that will be held in England next year, only stand testimony to the desperation that each team has been exhibiting so that cricket in their nation does not stall if they fail to qualify for the mega event.
With West Indies playing in the Qualifiers as well, its is very unlikely that the team will not go through. That leaves possibly only one team from Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Ireland and Netherlands — all teams that have pitched in with some major upsets in recent ICC events — for the last spot and while this has led to an increased level of competition in the Qualifiers, it remains as heart-breaking as well.
Afghanistan has rapidly risen in international cricket and have remained a motivational story indeed. It is not everyday that players from a war-ravaged country, with many belonging to refugee camps, get together to produce a bunch of highly skilled cricketers that can take on the best in the world. Leg-spinner Rashid Khan's success all over the world has made him a much-loved cricketer but with their second loss in as many games, the newly-crowned Test side risks the chance of missing out from the next round, forget even qualifying in the final two.
The Group B game between Zimbabwe and Afghanistan, that ended in a tense two-run win for the hosts, had its share of drama and high-intense altercations between the two sides, something that one would not expect the minnows to indulge in. The Afghans set the tone with a prolonged appeal when they thought that Sikandar Raza had been caught plumb in front of the wicket and thereafter the Afghans kept poking their rivals. It was on display when Brendan Taylor smashed Mujeeb Rahman for 16 runs in an over and then again when Rahman 'accidently' threw the ball towards Taylor, something that did not go down too well with the Zimbabwean captain Graeme Cremer.
The volatility continued even in the second innings, in which Afghanistan needed 197 for victory. When even the crowd joined the party by the end — applauding in unison whenever Zimbabwe bowled a dot ball — it was clear that a triumph and a progression to the world tournament was not just a priority for the players but the citizens of the respective nations as well.
Many young aspiring cricketers, who took the field after Ireland's Kevin O'Brian bludgeoned his way to a ton against England in the 2011 World Cup, or when Afghanistan became the only team to defeat West Indies in the 2016 Twenty20 (T20) World Cup, would have been hopeful that they too, could one day dream of donning the national jersey on the grand stage. But with uncertainty looming large over a World Cup participation that could rob them the chance to rub shoulders with the greatest cricketers, these young cricketers are now destined to be a part of the lower rungs in cricket, where the hopes of playing against the likes of Virat Kohli and Mitchell Starc remains a distant dream. With even the T20 World Cup being held every four years, instead of the earlier gap of two, an individual is being left with too much of an uncertainty over his future as a professional cricketer.
It would not be a surprise then, if many young players leave cricket circuit. The ICC, in their quest for making the World Cup more "competitive", risk losing much more.