Associating with associates

There are 26 countries, which play ODIs and 22, which turn out in Twenty20. The onus is on the ICC and the big cricket playing countries to nurture the aspirations of the associate members who genuinely care for the game.

Afghanistan is the most improved of the Associate teams and has been giving a good fight to the heavyweights.   -  AP

Netherlands played in the qualifying round of the 2016 World Twenty20, but is finding it difficult to break into the higher grade.   -  AP

Kenya's cricket seems to have hit a trough. The nation had qualified for all the 50-over World Cups from 1996 to 2011. It was also a semi-finalist in 2003!   -  GETTY IMAGES

During his visit to India as chairman of the International Cricket Council (ICC) two decades ago, Colin Cowdrey named Holland and Kenya as the probable countries which could stake a claim for full membership of the ICC in order to become eligible to play conventional Test match cricket. One of the leading lights of English and world cricket for a little over 20 years from 1954 — a champion batsman, who turned out for Kent, Marylebone Cricket Club and England — Cowdrey’s judgment was based on the fact of a substantial group of Asians playing their part in the development of the game in Kenya and that cricket, though far down in the popularity charts in comparison with soccer and field hockey, had shown sufficient hints of capturing the Dutch people’s mindset.

Cowdrey’s hope, it appeared, would become a reality. Holland made its ICC World Cup debut in 1996 and cricketers like Bastiaan Zuiderent, Roland Lefebvre and Tim de Leede made headlines with their performance with bat and ball. Thereafter Peter Borren, Wesley Baressi and Ryan ten Doeschate (Kolkata Knight Riders) sustained Holland’s interest in the game. Qualifying for the 1996, 2003, 2007 and 2011 ICC World Cups further proved the presence of talent in the European country, but its absence from the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand appears to be a setback which it has to surmount quickly. In the ongoing World Twenty20, it lost to Bangladesh by eight runs in the qualifiers, beat Ireland, shared points with Oman in a rain-marred match and could not progress to the Super 10 stage.

After showing much promise — Kenya qualified for every World Cup from 1996 to 2011 — the east African nation missed the quadrennial event in Australia-New Zealand and has not made the World Twenty20 cut after 2007. Kenya progressed on the back of some wonderful performances by Steve Tikolo, Thomas Odoyo, Maurice Odumbe and a number of Obuyas. Kenya was at its peak when it reached the 2003 World Cup semifinal in South Africa.

Canada is another country, thanks to the Caribbean and Asian influence, that appeared to have gathered momentum when it qualified for the 2011 World Cup in India. But the ice hockey and basketball country has not been up to the mark to make further progress. Among other associate member countries of the ICC, Afghanistan, Ireland, Scotland, UAE and Oman have shown the inclination to spend time and energy on the game.

Afghanistan has been quite remarkable among the associate countries in terms of showing interest, performing on the field and trying to punch above its weight. The cricketers from the war-ravaged country have shown a number of times that they can wield the willow with skill and power and hurl some useful deliveries — pace and spin — and can rise to the occasion to match the best in the business. Afghanistan trounced Scotland, Hong Kong and Zimbabwe in the qualifiers at Nagpur and fought well against Sri Lanka, South Africa and England, before beating the West Indies, to make a big impact in the Super 10 stage of the 2016 ICC World Twenty20.

On the face it, it looks as though Afghanistan would fast track its cricketing ambitions. Guided by former Pakistan captain Inzamam-ul-Haq and India’s Manoj Prabhakar (in the bowling department), the Asghar Stanikzai-led Afghanistan has earned brownie points from some legends of the game.

“We are eager to play in each and every World Cup and we have requested the ICC to give us more exposure and allow big teams to play a series with us. We need to be harnessed to perform better and we need more matches. We need series against full members to improve. We are working hard, our domestic cricket structure is good. Infrastructure is being built. We have made good progress,’’ said an optimistic Stanikzai recently.

The overall performance of Afghanistan and, Oman to an extent, has raised some pertinent issues about whether the full members with a rich cricket culture would be ready to walk the extra mile and support the associate members. The BCCI has done its bit by creating an overseas ‘home ground’ for Afghanistan at a Greater Noida facility in Uttar Pradesh. The Afghanistan Cricket Board can schedule matches at the Shaheed Vijay Singh Pathik Sports Complex and also plan the team’s training programmes. Afghanistan teams at different levels will benefit by this arrangement, said a BCCI official, who did not rule out the possibility of internationals between junior and ‘A’ teams.

Occasionally, the BCCI receives requests from the Nepal cricket authorities. “But now that the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association has offered its facilities as a high performance centre for the Asian Cricket Council, a large number of Asian countries will benefit,” said the BCCI official.

Not only Afghanistan, the ICC needs to look at ways to give exposure to countries like Holland, Scotland, Ireland, Kenya, Namibia, Canada, UAE and Oman, where there is a strong foundation and considerable following for the game. With the full members busy with the Future Tour Programme (2016-23), they could be looking at more ‘A’ and under-19 tours. The recent trend to hire retired cricketers with special skills may increase manifold too; England did so with Sri Lanka’s Mahela Jayawardene, Australia brought in India’s S. Sriram and Oman took on board Sunil Joshi.

Afghanistan has demonstrated that it can compete with the best in the ODI and Twenty20 formats. It, perhaps, has the right to demand more opportunities against the top-end teams having surpassed itself in last year’s World Cup and in the 2016 World Twenty20. The ICC has an elaborate programme for the associate and affiliate countries and evaluates their performance as and when the need arises. It’s highly unlikely, however, that the world of cricket would see additions to the Test-playing nations group.

There are 26 countries which play ODIs and 22 which turn out in Twenty20. The onus is on the ICC and the big cricket playing countries to nurture the aspirations of the associate members who genuinely care for the game.