By EC Patron Kieran Holly
As we look to the future and long for the return of cricket, it now might be a good time to reflect on the place of Associate cricket within the grand scale of the sport. While there have been positive signs, such as all international T20 matches between Associate sides being granted full T20I status, there have been far more negative signs, such as the reduction in size of the World Cup and the disappearance of the Intercontinental Cup. Despite this, the standard of Associate cricket across the spectrum is high and forever improving. With that being said, I have highlighted three aspects to continuing this development with the future goal of forcing the ICC into reversing these recent decisions.
Associate-Full Member fixtures
Recent years has delivered some incredible moments for Associates against Full Member sides. This is a testament to the increase in standard amongst emerging nations. Even when results have been unfortunate, each team has always shown a respectable account of themselves. Prior to the current pandemic, more fixtures between Associate and Full Members had been announced. The Netherlands, who have made a habit of upsetting full members, had ODI Superleague series against Pakistan, Zimbabwe and the West Indies, and a T20 series hosting New Zealand. Scotland, who not long-ago stunned England in their ODI victory, had also scheduled an ODI meeting with New Zealand and a T20 against Australia.
Whilst these are among the best Associate sides, they are in the company of other strong members who do not get the same opportunities. This was proven by the enthralling T20 World Cup Qualifier in UAE. Despite the competition itself showing signs of exciting talent throughout, the fact that a couple of the nations expected to challenge for a spot at ‘The Big Dance’ did not make the qualifiers speaks volumes.
Another competition that is providing a route for Associate members to high-level cricket is the Asia Cup. This competition highlights my previous points on the increase in standard across the board. Since the inclusion of emerging nations, not only have there been a variety of members qualify but each has not looked out of place on the big stage. These positive signs and there is definitely an argument to increase the number qualifying teams.
I believe these fixtures are important to the development of cricket within emerging nations. With regards to standard, more playing time against higher-level opposition will improve the performance of the teams over time and allow the stars of the emerging nations to showcase their skills against top opposition. In terms of developing the sport within the population of the emerging nations, these fixtures give teams much needed relevance within the grand scale of the game. Extra attention to fixtures hosting full members usually results in bumper crowds, many of whom may be taking their first venture into the world of cricket.
Associate Representation in Major Tournaments
There have already been a wide range of articles supporting the case of an expanded World Cup, therefore I am focusing the attention of this section to representation in domestic and franchise leagues.
The domestic leagues are starting to wake up to the talent that the emerging nations have to offer. The newest Full Members, Ireland and Afghanistan, have made an increasing impact on the domestic circuit, with the latter producing some of the most sought-after talent in the global leagues. Among the Associates, Sandeep Lamichhane is the poster-boy of what emerging cricket has to offer. Not only is he fooling batsmen across the leagues, but he has a real star factor that can only benefit the image of Associate cricket. This is highlighted by the army of faithful Nepalese fans that support him across the leagues.
I remain extremely optimistic that the emerging sides will display their quality when the T20 World Cup does take place. On a team perspective, each of the qualifiers have at some point shown the grit and determination in the qualifiers needed to make a stamp on the big stage. For individual players, it is an incredible opportunity to display their skills to the global cricketing community. With regards to the current worldwide pandemic and the economic effects it will enforce on the domestic competitions, the T20 World Cup may act as a shop window for unearthing emerging gems. More teams may opt to take a risk on an emerging star that could be cheaper on the wage books but with the potential to make the difference in a game.
Associate Hosted Tournaments
This point is the one which is probably on the most uneasy ground with the current situation given the difficulty with funding these competitions beforehand. However, I do believe there may be an increased appreciation and appetite for sport when things return to normal. If competitions such as the Global T20, Everest Premier League, T10 League and the proposed Major League Cricket manage to find a way to operate, these competitions can act as a pathway for emerging talent to the display their ability to the top leagues and an opportunity to come face to face with some of the games top players.
The European Cricket League has proved that these competitions do not need to be topped up with the stars of the full members to be successful and loved. There has been an incredible amount of hard work in marketing and planning to get the funding and coverage for the tournament, but it has been proved possible and made incredible matches, interesting stories and new heroes along the way. Away from the TV screens but still accessible to stream are the amateur leagues of Europe hosted by the European Cricket Network. Although the stream is not to the quality of ECL broadcast, it has proved that fans are interested and watch this cricket, despite the quality of the footage. Footage like this will also shine a light on the new emerging players coming through and more coverage of emerging cricket nations and leagues, regardless of the quality, can only help towards growing the popularity within emerging nations. It is very difficult to persuade new fans to follow their national and domestic cricket if it is difficult to watch them.
If, through these troubling times, these leagues manage to sustain themselves and continue to provide a good standard of cricket, they could act as a pyramid for the emerging talent to the top leagues. These leagues can breed success and act as inspiration to other Associates looking to set up similar competitions. However, these can only be effective with a shift in attitude from the ICC and greater cricketing community towards the emerging nations. There are currently players on the Associate circuit that have the ability to rub shoulders with the stars of the game if given the chance. In the meantime, the support and sustaining of these competitions can provide a route to high-level cricket for the top emerging players, however foggy it may seem at times.
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