Associate/Affiliate XI is a great initiative, but not as a Test side
The successful experiment with a first-class encounter between an ICC Associate/Affiliates Combined XI and England as part of the latter’s preparation for their Test series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates has given rise to a good deal of media discussion about making such matches a more regular feature of the international programme.
The match unquestionably provided a valuable showcase for many of the best players from outside the world of Test cricket, as well as a rather tougher workout for the tourists than they perhaps anticipated.
So it provides valuable ammunition for the ICC’s High Performance director Richard Done and his colleagues as they encourage the Full members to introduce more games of this kind into their touring schedules.
But some have gone further, suggesting that the Associate/Affiliate side should become the eleventh Test side in its own right.
This is, I believe, a thoroughly bad idea, and moreover one which could scarcely be more unfortunately timed.
Later this month, Lord Woolf will be presenting the report on his governance review to the ICC Executive Board, and we must assume that issues such as the relationship between membership categories and playing status and the balance of power between the exclusive club of ten Full members and the 95 Associates and Affiliates will feature prominently in the discussion.
The current situation, of course, is that Full membership and Test status are effectively co-extensive, to the extent that when Zimbabwe withdrew from Tests it was described as ‘suspension’, enabling them to retain their Full membership and with it the extremely lucrative funding allocations they gain from the ICC by virtue of that status.
That is, therefore, one of the obstacles in the way of Ireland’s elevation to Full membership: since they do not have the infrastructure in place which is now one of the prerequisites for playing Tests, the argument has been that under the current constitution they cannot become a Full member.
It would help if Full membership and playing status were to be decoupled, so that a country like Ireland could become a Full member on the basis of its undoubted progress and the consistent achievements of its teams, without necessarily becoming a Test-playing nation at the same time.
Issues of playing status could then be decided separately and on their merits: there is, for example, a very strong case for Ireland’s gaining permanent ODI status, although it might well be true that the acquisition of Test status would be premature.
Even these changes, however, would only go some of the way towards meeting an ambitious Associate member’s legitimate aspirations. And that is why the notion of a combined Associate/Affiliate Test team is such a dangerous one.
Any talented young sportsman (or sportswoman) aspires to play for their country at the highest possible level. In most sports, that is taken as a given, and governing bodies see it as their obligation to develop policies which help them achieve it.
Cricket, it seems, is different: not only do the men who run the global game see nothing wrong with forcing many young players to abandon their own country if they wish to play Test cricket, the acknowledged pinnacle of the game, but they put regulations in place which make it easy for a country like England to pick up players from the leading Associates, and much harder for such players to return to their sporting roots if they should wish to do so.
An Associate/Affiliate Test team would reinforce that iniquitous situation, letting the existing Full members off the hook by enabling them to claim that they had opened a side door to the Test arena for a fortunate few. But if you were a Boyd Rankin or a George Dockrell, would you rather play for a nondescript Associate/Affiliate XI, or for Ireland? More to the point, wouldn’t you want to play for England if Ireland were to be perpetually denied Test status?
So an Associate/Affiliate Test side would not be better than nothing; it would probably make an expansion of the number of Test-playing countries even more unlikely than it is at present.
By all means let’s have more matches like the one we have just seen in Dubai, where the leading players from the Associate and Affiliate countries gain valuable experience at the highest first-class level and get a chance to prove their mettle, not just as individuals and potential recruits for predatory Full members, but as representatives of the game’s global growth.
But let these games be part of a coherent, transparent strategy for widening the circle at the top, not through the tokenism of an combined Test side, but through an explicit pathway – one of the ICC’s favourite words, after all – to enhanced playing status for the most successful emerging cricket nations.
Two specific measures, in addition to those I have already discussed, would contribute greatly to the credibility of the ICC’s claims to have the global development of the game at heart.
One would be to institute a series of, say, three matches between the winners of the Intercontinental Cup and the lowest-ranked Test-playing country. I do not venture to propose that this series should involve promotion and relegation (though in a truly merit-based system it obviously would), but it would give the Cup winners valuable experience and exposure, and it would provide a measure of the two sides’ comparative strength.
Secondly, the leading contenders for eventual Test status should be given a clear and explicit pathway: they should be told, quite openly, that subject to their meeting specific requirements, such as the introduction of a domestic multi-day competition, they will achieve Test status at a given date in the future.
Such an approach would give players, coaches, administrators, supporters, and current and potential sponsors a clear trajectory for development. And it would mean that a 15-year-old in Rathmines, or Mombasa – or even, at some future moment, in Moresby or Miami – would know that he could legitimately aspire to play Test cricket for his own country at some point in the future, rather than having to settle for representing somebody else’s.
Do young cricketers deserve any less?