Winning friends and influencing people
Ger Siggins (Sunday Indpendent)
WHATEVER the result of Ireland’s last game in Pool B, this Cricket World Cup campaign has been arguably their most successful yet.
And while the 2007 side first reached that stage, it did so with just one win – in a format rigged to prevent such a recurrence this team will need four wins to qualify for a quarter-final.
Whenever the campaign ends for Phil Simmons’ men, their victories over West Indies and Zimbabwe have nailed the lie that Associates cannot be competitive with Full Members, but an important battle has also been waged off the field and its result could be even more significant.
It was eight years ago today that Trent Johnston led his team onto Sabina Park for Ireland’s first game ever in World Cups. But the reduction of the 2019 event from 14 teams to 10 could mean today’s game is the last they ever play.
The very idea has shocked the rest of the cricket world and many leading commentators and former players have been quick to stand up for Ireland, Afghanistan and the other Associates. Australia’s former World Cup winning captain, Steve Waugh, sees it as a missed opportunity to grow the game.
“It is definitely important to have the minnow countries to grow the game in different markets,” Waugh told the Sydney Morning Herald. “The World Cup of soccer has 32 countries. Cricket needs more than eight teams playing.” The former New Zealand captain Martin Crowe called for an 18-team event, while perhaps the most influential former player, Sachin Tendulkar, went even further.
Tendulkar is an ambassador for the ICC World Cup, but still spoke out at the unfairness of it all. "I found out the next World Cup would only be ten teams," he said. "Which is slightly disappointing because as a cricketer I want the game to be globalised as much as possible and this is a backwards step. We've got to find ways of encouraging the lesser teams.
"In each and every World Cup they always surprise top teams," Tendulkar continued. "And they can do it on a consistent basis only if they're given a fair platform to express their talent. Right now, they get up after four years on the cricket world's biggest platform and they're expected to play and compete with the likes of Australia, South Africa, India, New Zealand, West Indies, Sri Lanka, so many top sides. It's unfair to them.
“Why not get Australia A, England A, New Zealand A, South Africa A, New Zealand A, India A, everyone, to go and visit these countries and play them on a regular basis," Tendulkar added. "And see, not just 14 teams, but how can we get to 25 teams participating in the next World Cup?"
His compatriot, MS Dhoni, also called for more opportunities: "There has been a lot of improvement. But we'll have to give them more opportunities and we have to make sure that the infrastructure in those countries, they get better and better so more people can come and play cricket."
Some previously hostile commentators have changed their mind. Michael Atherton of Sky and the London Times has seen the light and now says Ireland are good enough to be playing at a higher level, while ex-England spinner Vic Marks wrote in the Guardian, “I want to see more of Ireland and Afghanistan. They have shown sufficient talent and confidence to seek victory rather than respectability. I am converted to the notion of an expanded World Cup for 2019.”
Another important voice is that of BBC correspondent Jonathan Agnew, who wrote: “Everyone has the right to change their mind and I have changed mine. Before the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean, I argued that the Associates should not be part of the World Cup.
“Over the eight years that have since passed, I have been proved wrong. This isn't only because of Ireland's wins against Pakistan, England and West Indies, but because all of the Associates have improved out of sight.”
The enormous ground won in the battle to change hearts and minds won’t be given up without a fight however, and Cricket Ireland have been busy pushing buttons down under. CEO Warren Deutrom spent a week with the squad, taking in the games against South Africa and Zimbabwe.
“I had the opportunity to engage with other officials there”, he said this weekend. “We have a good friend in the South Africa camp, former coach Adi Birrell, and we had useful talks there. And our chairman Ross McCollum and I had a long chat with Alastair Campbell, of Zimbabwe Cricket.
“ZC is equally concerned with what the ten-team World Cup means for them. We also met James Sutherland of Cricket Australia who has always been very supportive and we asked him could we get the next ICC board meeting to put the question of a smaller World Cup back on the agenda.”
Deutrom believes the pressure generated by excellent performances and supporter and media protest has helped. “It’s not just Ireland,” he says, “a number of teams are performing well.” It all means he is “confident” it will be back on the ICC board agenda in Dubai next month.