The participation figures released by the ICC recently provide reason for optimism for the future of the global game and demonstrate considerable growth over the last decade. The number of active players in associate and affiliate countries has more than doubled since 2002 to a healthy 140,000.
Perhaps more significantly the introduction of the World Cricket League (WCL) and a re-invigoration of its regional feeder tournaments has seen 38 countries compete internationally and a further 53 within their region. Pats on the back all-round are surely in order; from the ICC Development programme, to national boards and even those very accommodating employers who allow their staff time off work to play in a game they may never have heard of.
However, as ever the statistics obscure the whole truth. The issue of the development of indigenous players is a sensitive one. On the one hand in this modern, highly mobile, cosmopolitan global community who cares where someone is born or what their ethnic background is, as long as they are committed to the game and the country they are representing?
On the other hand there is a need for international cricket to retain its integrity and for teams to be representative. Take for example the Norway team that features eleven players that are Pakistani born and bred. They live in Norway, have qualified under the ICCís residency qualifications and no-one would begrudge them competing for their adopted land. However, their success, or indeed failure, tells us little about Norwayís calibre or development as a cricketing nation.
A cynic may argue that it constitutes little more than a glorified club team having their tour expenses covered by the ICC in the name of international competition. I donít count myself among those cynics but I do feel that cricket at associate and affiliate level does leave itself open to criticism in this regard.
The WCL is wonderful, captivating and has provided more drama than anyone could possibly have hoped for. But its results and rankings should be analysed with caution. It is a league table of sorts but it reflects more kindly on some than others. Bahrain, have galloped into division 5 after back-to-back promotions that have left the likes of Guernsey and Malaysia in their wake.
It is startling to reflect that all members of the Bahrain team are eligible to be selected to play test cricket, with Pakistan. None were born in Bahrain and none are Arabic. The players deserve all the plaudits they garner, both home and abroad, but i canít help but feel cheated, as if this is the teamís success and not Bahrains.
The WCL system would look a little different if the eligibility rules were tightened and teams were truly representative. Bare with me as I carry out an experiment. Lets play the devils advocate and say that a national squad should only have a maximum of five players qualifying through residency. What impact would that have on the WCL i hear you ask.
Well, teams like Canada, UAE and Hong Kong would really struggle. On the other hand some nations, like Uganda, Nepal and Papua New Guinea, would race up the ladder. It may look a little like this.
You will note that we have lost Italy, Norway and Singapore and the Middle East region has no representation whatsoever. Iím not for a minute suggesting that this should be adopted but it does illustrate an issue that must be addressed by the ICC and regional development teams. It is only to be expected that on cricketís frontiers, ex-pats will sow the seeds of a growing sport. But they must show willing to develop the sport beyond their enclaves and introduce locals both to the game and to national representation, even if this may, at least in the short term, have a detrimental impact on results.
Some countries, such as Japan, have adopted unofficial quotas to ensure the core of the team is national born, supplemented with a choice few ex-pats to help guide them into familiarity with the sport. Afterall, international cricket should not be a means for a cliquey group of cricketing chums to be jetted around the world at the ICCís expense. Perhaps the ICC should consider introducing a timeframe and targets for ethnic integration of all teams. They could give this teeth with a range of sanctions for those not taking their development role seriously.
Lets be honest: if Norway were, by a remarkable run of fortune and form, to qualify for a future world cup the mainstream press would have a field day with the fact that they donít field a single Norwegian player. Of course this would be grossly unfair and unkind on the players themselves, and indeed on the ICC who can be justly proud of their meritocratic WCL.
But, nevertheless, it would damage cricketís reputation and could cast into doubt the viability of international fixtures at the lower reaches of the global game. I therefore call upon national boards, in partnership with the ICC, to step up their efforts to integrate local players into their national set-up and field a team that reflects the ethnic mix and diversity of their nation.
Given these limitations it was heartening to see the USA and Canada qualify for the Under 19 World Cup. These two teams, both guilty in the past of enticing a 40 year old West Indian out of retirement rather than put faith in home grown talent, have clearly invested in their youth. The vast majority in both ranks are still imports but at least they have been included in the fold at a young age and have a vested interest in the nations cricketing development. Over the next few years i hope to see several of these scholars be introduced to the senior team.
One of the problems with the growth of cricket in associate and affiliate countries is the lack of publicity and interest in the sport in the national media and consciousness. Even the Netherlands, one of the strongest associates, struggles to get cricket into the papers and on the television.
This lack of exposure is reflected in a lack of funding, sponsorship and government backing. This problem is exacerbated in countries where the team is dominated by Asian ex-pats. In such cases It is simply not perceived as a national team, but rather as something foreign that is only played among immigrant communities. This notion has to be challenged and local players encouraged and included.
With results and rankings at stake culture change may be hard to accept for some cricketing outposts. But the fact that it could serve as a catalyst for the development of the game they have introduced to their adopted lands should encourage them to act.
It is my belief that all teams should field three indigenous players in international fixtures and limit to four those qualifying solely through residency. The remainder of the squad should therefore be a mixture of those represented in youth development programmes and those who moved to the country prior to the age of 16. In five years time teams should look to increase the indigenous players quota to six and reduce those qualifying through residency to two. This will produce more representative squads that are more likely to be supported and adopted as the national team.
I am aware in proposing this that someone may ask whether I expect the USA to field six native Americans or will insist that teams from the British Isles should carry out DNA tests to distinguish the Celts from the invading Normans. Clearly the term Ďindigenousí will always be a subjective and controversial one, but that doesnít mean that we should ignore the fact that international competition will be more representative, relevant and robust if cricket reaches out beyond its pioneering communities to embrace and be embraced in return by the country at large.
So associates and affiliates open your minds as you open your ranks. After all, regional rivalries may be the focus of a national team but the most important victory, one that all should strive for with united purpose, is that over the seemingly limitless spread and all-consuming passion of football.
If cricket is to be more than a minority sport it must reach out to the majority.