Is a betrayal being prepared?
It is difficult to believe that the ICC is really considering a move which would be a profound betrayal of everything they have worked for in the expansion of world cricket over the past ten years.
Less than two years ago they published a Strategic Plan which seemed determined to build on the achievements of the High Performance Program, offering the prospect of increasing participation by non-Test countries at the highest levels of the sport.
The moves to open up cricket’s traditional restrictive practices, initiated by men like the late Bob Woolmer, have seen the putting in place of a five-tier World Cricket League, an eight-team Intercontinental Cup which gives the leading Associates invaluable experience of first-class cricket, and a funding system which – even if the levels are not yet adequate and the distribution ludicrously skewed – is gradually bringing the top Associates towards a form of semi-professionalism.
And the benefits of all of this have been fully apparent, not least through Ireland’s epic achievements in the Caribbean, beating two Test countries and tying with a third.
All right, no other Associate was able to match that extraordinary run, and some of the games between the top ODI sides and their ‘minnow’ opponents turned out to be the anticipated mismatches, but nevertheless the presence of all six added to the tournament and produced some memorable cricketing moments.
Paradoxically, it appears to be Ireland’s very success that is now fuelling demands from the host countries of the 2011 World Cup to reduce the number of participants to 14, bringing the qualifiers down to four.
The early elimination of Pakistan, followed by that of India, had a severe effect on the competition’s profitability, as well as causing great embarrassment to two of the ICC’s most over-mighty Full members. The hosts for 2011 are obviously keen to avoid such mishaps in future, and cutting down the numbers seems to be one way of doing so.
But Pakistan’s spoiled superstars were beaten fair and square by a dedicated Irish squad who were the better team on the day, and no amount of fiddling with the rules will save them if they and their masters don’t face up to the lessons of that match.
It’s true, of course, that there were more games in the preliminary round of the 2003 World Cup in South Africa, which is probably fairer overall as well as producing more match-ups between the leading contenders, but there is no necessary connection between the structure at the group stage and the number of participating countries.
It cannot be beyond the collective intelligence of the ICC to come up with a format which gives an optimal schedule while at the same time retaining – or even expanding – the 16-team tournament we saw in the West Indies.
It’s not surprising that the leading Associates are reportedly up in arms over the 14-team proposal, and that they are doing their best to find an attractive alternative.
After all the time, effort, commitment and money that have been devoted to growing the game across the world, reducing the opportunities for the developing cricket nations to strut their stuff on the most brightly-illuminated world stage, to sacrifice these aspirations on the twin idols of massive profit and narrow, national self-interest, would indeed be a betrayal of the work of the ICC’s dedicated development team and of players, coaches and administrators across the world.
It would be a disgraceful victory for the ever-growing greed of the Full members and of the ICC’s commercial department.
And it would be to urinate on the grave of Bob Woolmer, whose vision and commitment lie behind much of what has already been achieved.