Throw them into the big ring

Afghanistan players are jubilant after the fall of Virender Sehwag's wicket. The team gave India a run for its money in the T20 World Cup.-AP

Afghanistan and Ireland have the potential to develop into top rung teams. What they need now is more exposure to international cricket. By Arun Venugopal.

About two weeks ago, when the ICC World Twenty20 sashayed its way into Sri Lanka, attention was expectedly rivetted on the big teams.

Guessing games as to who would be crowned champion were pursued with considerable zeal: would India make it a ‘double’ what with the 50-over World Cup already in its knapsack? Was it going to be Sri Lanka’s time to savour glory after a few near-misses? Would the West Indies reclaim its lost legacy? What of the irrepressible Pakistanis and the meticulous South Africans?

Far removed from such predictions and punts were Zimbabwe, Ireland, and Afghanistan (Bangladesh had secured for itself the status of a ‘dark horse’). Not that the situation dissuaded them from dusting up their gear and preparing for combat with higher-ranked sides. Surely, the prospect of knocking down a mighty oak was a big incentive by itself.

There was the familiar innate empathy that embalms the underdog; people willed them to shake up entrenched hierarchies.

And, in a tournament that plodded along in its first week, a few upsets would have provided the much-needed zing. That, however, wasn’t to be. While not everyone was familiar with the cricketing exploits of these amateurs and semi-professionals, their back stories made for an engrossing read.

The Afghan mystique

Afghanistan, for instance, was surrounded by the fragrance of mystique. A bunch of cricketers from the strife-torn land were seen, by their countrymen and others alike, as redeemers of peace and joy.

The narrative was further shaped by, apart from several news reports, a book and a feature-length documentary. Backed by BBC Storyville and executive produced by Oscar-winning director and cricket enthusiast, Sam Mendes, ‘Out of the Ashes’ shed “new light on a nation beyond burqas, bombs, drugs and devastation.”

Veteran Irish fast bowler Trent Johnston denounced the use of the term `minnows' and slammed the reluctance of countries such as Bangladesh and Zimbabwe to play Ireland.-PTI

“There are a lot of problems in the world today… Everywhere there is complex fighting, injustice.... The solution to all the problems!” says Taj Malik, coach of Afghanistan. The book by the same name — authored by Tim Albone, former Afghanistan correspondent for the Times and Sunday Times – charted the “players' progress from refugees in Pakistan to the brink of international sporting stardom.”

Afghanistan had been nothing short of impressive on the field, qualifying for the World T20 twice in a row. The sporting abilities of the Nawroz Mangals, Shapoor Zadrans, and Mohammad Nabis were consigned to the background with observers merely marvelling at the exotica on view.

The Afghans, nevertheless, did their burgeoning reputation plenty of good as they made India sweat in a league game. Their next match against England was a disaster but it was evident that Afghanistan was maturing into a promising team. They had also given a fine account of themselves in the lone ODI against Australia at Sharjah in August this year.

Irish saga

Ireland, on the other hand, was taken a little more seriously, the respect stemming from its past giant-killing acts. The nation’s greatest cricketing moment unfolded during its maiden World Cup appearance in 2007, when it scuppered Pakistan and advanced to the Super Eights stage. Its recent claim to fame was the Kevin O’ Brien-engineered victory over England in last year’s 50-over World Cup. But the side, ravaged by gastric illness, didn’t fare too well in the recently-concluded World T20.

In the larger context, it’s the transition to the next level that these teams seek. But for that to materialise, wouldn’t they require a healthy chunk of game-time, particularly against the ‘Big Boys’ of cricket? Veteran Irish fast bowler Trent Johnston denounced the use of the term ‘minnows’ and slammed the reluctance of countries such as Bangladesh and Zimbabwe to play Ireland. “Why don’t Bangladesh and Zimbabwe want to play us? I know why, because they’re scared that we’ll beat them and that we’ll go above them in the rankings.

“I know that for a fact. I can understand that the big boys play too much cricket and that they ask how they can squeeze a series in with Ireland. But something has got to be done, because we don’t want to be at this ‘minnow’ level as well, which is what the commentators call us. We’re associate cricketers and we’re aware of that, we’re not ‘minnows.’”

Meanwhile, the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) has decided to nominate Afghanistan, currently an Affiliate nation, for Associate membership with the International Cricket Council. “Afghanistan has been the strongest side among the Affiliate members, so we are backing them for the promotion,” said ACC chief executive, Ashraf-ul-Haq. The Afghanistan Cricket Board, on its part, had carried out an organisational review earlier this year to enhance cricketing administration in the country.

A key area for concern is the manner in which Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have underachieved. It’s been more than a decade since Bangladesh became a Test-playing nation. But their win/loss record is an abysmal 3/63. Zimbabwe’s stocks have plummeted quite alarmingly but its lot can be attributed to the political turmoil in the country.

The performances of these two sides need to be reviewed before further rot sets in. Eminent cricket analyst Harsha Bhogle rightly wrote in one of his columns: “A hundred countries may play cricket but it is still really only eight.” For the sport to acquire a truly global character — and not a farcical façade — attempts must be made to strengthen the existing system. And that can happen only when the ‘minnows' are thrown into the big ring. Never mind some lopsided results.