The last full European summer before the 2007 World Cup and the introduction of the World Cricket League has had its fair share of controversy, but also a number of significant milestones and achievements.
The highest profile events, of course, were the four ODIs against Test nations played by Europe’s World Cup qualifiers, their first outside ICC tournaments. All three countries put up a good fight, without ever getting close to challenging their more illustrious opponents: Ireland came within 38 runs of England’s 301 for seven; Scotland recovered from 20 for four against Pakistan to reach 203 for eight (Ryan Watson making a superb 85-ball 80) and then had the Pakistanis on 93 for five before the tourists turned the game around again; and The Netherlands, despite conceding a world-record 443 for nine in the first of their two games, came back well, compiling 248 and 258 and losing the second match by just 55 runs.
For Scotland and Ireland, 2006 was the first season in the new-look C&G Trophy, and both had their moments of glory. Scotland did the better, winning three of their nine games, and three out of four during one dazzling spell in May. Watson was again the star with the bat, hitting a century and two fifties, while Paul Hoffmann and his fellow-Aussie seamer, overseas player Ian Moran, were the most successful with the ball.
Ireland, on the other hand, registered just a solitary win, defeating Gloucestershire early on with Shahid Afridi taking three for 4 in the closing stages, but that apart they struggled. Afridi and Saqlain Mushtaq were generally disappointing, taking just eleven wickets between them, and the batting never really competed after that one success.
If Scotland had the better record in the C&G Trophy, Ireland dominated European competitions, winning every championship from the senior Division I to the under-13s, their only defeat coming in the women’s under-21 tournament, where they finished second to a powerful, full England under-21 side. This was a remarkable and unprecedented achievement by the Irish, and one which bodes well for their future.
Poor weather and two controversies overshadowed the First and Second Division championships in Scotland, with only one of the three ODIs escaping the rain. But the weather was a minor inconvenience by comparison with the fuss over Israel’s participation in the middle of the country’s military campaign in Lebanon, which led to the abandonment of one game and another being played more than 150 miles away at RAF Lossiemouth.
And as if this weren’t enough, tournament organisers were then forced to take action against Second Division side Hellas, who were found to have fielded players who did not satisfy the ICC’s development criteria. The Greeks were docked all their points – they had won all three group matches – and then declined to travel to Lossiemouth for their play-off for seventh place against Israel. The ICC is expected to rule on these events in November.
On a happier note, three countries made their debut in European tournaments, with mixed success: Jersey came back from an initial defeat by France – their first match against Israel having fallen victim to the political furore – to finish second in Division 2, while Guernsey came fifth, and Cyprus were second to Finland in Division 4.
With the introduction of the Fourth Division, European cricket now has a tournament structure which is calibrated with the ICC’s World Cricket League, and which gives every member country the theoretical possibility of reaching the ICC Trophy and ultimately qualifying for the World Cup. The current success story is Norway, who have won three European tournaments in four seasons, including this season’s Second Division, and have thus qualified for Division 1, and for the World League Division 5.
There were, it is true, some oddities about the ECC First Division championship, and not only those associated with the west of Scotland weather. As with other European tournaments, there was a limit on the size of the competing squads, but it was ruled that this did not apply to the three ODIs, and Scotland flew Warwickshire’s Dougie Brown in for their matches against Ireland and The Netherlands.
This seemed a bit illogical: after all, a tournament is a tournament, and surely the same rules should apply to all competing teams. Denmark did not have the option of adding, say, Amjad Khan to their squad for one match. And all the games in the World Cup will be ODIs, but the tournament rule about squad limits will apply to them.
There was also a degree of inconsistency about the policy of counties towards making their players available. Ireland had Kent’s Niall O’Brien available for all four matches, but Eoin Morgan was released by Middlesex only for the ODI against Scotland, where he made a memorable 99. John Blain (Yorkshire and Scotland) was also available for the whole tournament, but Essex called Ryan ten Doeschate back for the Sunday on which The Netherlands played Scotland, for a 40-over League match in which, as it turned out, he neither batted nor bowled. In the 20-over thrash which Scotland won off the penultimate ball ten Doeschate’s presence might well have been decisive.
It’s hard to see a solution to this problem, the economics of sport being as they are. But it’s tough when countries’ selections are partly determined by the vagaries of counties’ attitudes, although in fairness nothing that happened in Scotland approached the absurdity of the situation which applied to the Ireland-England match, when Kent refused to release Niall O’Brien because they had already had to release Geraint Jones to England.
Apart from Ireland’s domination of the age-group tournaments, there were important developments in the ECC’s youth programme. The European Academy and Centre of Excellence were held for the first time at La Manga, Spain, and the success of that initiative has led to ambitious plans for the development of a permanent ECC cricket facility there. And the first-ever Women’s Academy was held in Edinburgh, initiated by Cricket Scotland and supported by Lloyds TSB and the ECC.
But perhaps the most far-reaching innovation was basing the under-19 tournament on two-day matches, introducing a generation of young cricketers to the longer – and for many people, the fundamental – form of the sport. The success of this experiment, despite more trouble with the weather in the closing stages, suggests that it should be extended to other age-groups, although it is debatable whether the extension of bonus points to the second innings is in the interest of good cricket.
The globalisation of top-level Associates’ cricket means that the ‘close’ season is no longer really closed. The Netherlands face a tough three-week tour to South Africa in November-December, where they will complete the group stage of the Intercontinental Cup, needing outright wins against Bermuda and Canada if they are to reach the final, and play a tri-series against the same opponents.
Scotland and Ireland have a quieter time until the New Year, but both will travel to the UAE knowing that a win in their final Intercontinental Cup game could take them to the final of that competition for the second time. Both recorded easy wins against Namibia, but Scotland have the inside running after gaining the better of what ended as an acrimonious draw against the Irish in Aberdeen in August.
The World Cricket League in Nairobi is clearly intended to give all the non-Test countries some serious match practice before the demands of the World Cup in March. That will be the real measure of whether the High Performance Programme has made a difference, and whether the nay-sayers who want to keep international cricket a closed shop have a point.
One can only hope that they are conclusively proved wrong.