December 29, 2012

Marginalised and messy

Associate nations slid further away from the spotlight this year, and several look unlikely to make their way back

At a time when the international calendar is putting the game's big players and senior countries under increasing strain, with fear of burnout a real concern, it was inevitable that 2012 would be a year where Associate cricket continued to slide into the shadows. The halcyon days when the leading Associates aspired to become full-fledged members of the ICC elite are increasingly a distant memory.

It's not as if most of them have done anything wrong, but the demands of TV, sponsors and money-centric boards has left them scrambling for the scraps. The irony is that the explosion of T20, which presents the major Associates with the best chance of embarrassing the Full Member countries, has also left them more marginalised than at any time in the last decade. As lucrative T20s are added to Full Member tours, the opportunities for Associates to arrange fixtures with the bigger nations diminishes further.

There was no real change in the world order, with Ireland by some way the most professional and ambitious of the teams. Under the leadership of their impressive and forward-looking chief executive Warren Deutrom, they continued to press forward with ambitious plans, including their own domestic first-class tournament. They finished the year at the top of both the Intercontinental Cup and World Cricket League, the premier Associate competitions, and won the World Twenty20 Qualifiers in Dubai, where their only defeat came at the hands of Namibia in their opening match. In the tournament proper they were well beaten by Australia and eliminated by West Indies in frustrating circumstances when rain washed out their winner-takes-all group match.

Afghanistan, the other Associate at the World Twenty20 after finishing runners-up in the qualifiers, were also eliminated at the first hurdle, but they briefly threatened India and went home with more to show for their efforts than either Zimbabwe or Bangladesh. In the Intercontinental Cup they continued to sit on Ireland's tail but their ODI performances were less consistent. They continue to punch above their weight in terms of publicity, to the undisguised frustration of others, with one senior Full Member chief executive snidely referring to them as "Pakistan B".

Scotland and Netherlands both had enough success to keep them interested but fell short where it mattered. Neither qualified for the World Twenty20, their one tilt at the big time, although Netherlands only fell one match short. In a wretched summer Scotland had another disappointment when their highest-profile home game - against England - was washed out. They managed only one win out of 12 in the Clydesdale Bank Pro40 but Netherlands proved their worth with three wins in their first four outings and finished a creditable mid-table in their group.

Elsewhere Canada's off-field promotion improved but their results did not and they ended 2012 at the bottom of both Associate tournaments, the gulf between them and the leading countries even wider than it had been a year earlier. They finished third in their group in the World Twenty20 Qualifiers but were well beaten in the matches that mattered.

As lucrative T20s are added to Full Member tours, the opportunities for Associates to arrange fixtures with the bigger nations diminish further

Namibia, despite a small player pool, again impressed in the qualifiers, topping their group with seven wins in seven, only to be beaten by Ireland in the semi-final. They fared less well aside from that and face a frustrating 2013 as they are already out of contention in the World Cricket League and very much off the pace in the Intercontinental Cup.

One country going in the wrong direction is Kenya. A senior international administrator privately admitted that they had squandered a decade of substantial investment and had nothing to show for it. On the field their performances continued to be lamentable - and this despite the board continuing to retain a fully paid squad - and old and depressingly self-defeating off-field squabbles again surfaced. The election of Jackie Janmohammed, one of the faces of the old Kenyan Cricket Association, gave every indication that no lessons had been learned. She has a year to turn things round and the odds seem stacked against her.

Kenya will face a tough qualifying competition in 2014 for the following year's World Cup, and unless results improve dramatically they face losing substantial ICC funding. That would mean much of the internal structure falling apart.

The other country in a mess is the USA, but that is almost entirely down to poor governance and endless bickering. The announcement of a professional T20 competition starting in 2013 briefly ruffled feathers, especially in England, during whose season it would take place, but it soon became clear that the USA Cricket Association, which stands to benefit financially from the venture, was too intent on infighting and disqualifying most of its own stakeholders from participating in highly criticised internal elections to be able to push the concept. By the end of the year the USACA was not only an international laughing stock, largely thanks to the actions of its own executive secretary, but were turning off investors in droves.

For quite some time the ICC, with justification, seemed to see the USA as the market worth cracking. But the USACA managed to kill that vision and now the ICC pushes China as the land of opportunity. But despite a stream of upbeat stories, that remains a distant dream, with small pockets of success.

The sad reality is that Associate cricket is more marginalised than at any time in the last decade, and that is despite the sterling efforts of the ICC, both financially and logistically. The international calendar and the self-interest and greed of most Full Member boards leaves the Associates fighting over crumbs at the top table. If anyone can break down the barriers, it is Ireland, but if they don't, the future is even grimmer than it is now.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa