In the World Cup of 2011, England kept the tournament alive in the early stages by losing to Ireland and Bangladesh and beating West Indies and South Africa, thereby scraping into the quarter-finals before producing an anaemic performance against Sri Lanka.
This time, until the little epic at Eden Park on Saturday, the associates were the ones keeping us interested. Ireland, who thrashed West Indies and scraped past the United Arab Emirates, have yet to be beaten. Afghanistan frightened Sri Lanka and then participated in a thrilling game when they defeated Scotland by one wicket in Dunedin.
The vanguard for the associates is growing by the day. Some of the advocates come purely from a cricketing perspective, others are more political seeing the shunning of the Irish, Afghans, Scots and Emiratees as further evidence of a nasty plutocracy in charge of the game.
I have to admit to swaying in their direction. In 2011 in Asia Kenya were thrashed by all the established nations; so too the Canadians and the Dutch – except against England when they lost respectably. The experience did not seem to do any of them much good and we were lumbered with some ghastly games, which made the tournament appear bloated and stupid.
Fearing a repetition in 2015 the idea of a 10-team tournament, almost mirroring the format of 1992 in Australasia, made sense. But in October last year the ICC, after much protest, swerved back to 14 teams. Now the associates are winning me over. The Irish are so tenacious; they are capable of chasing anything and they are not frightened to win. Moreover, Afghanistan, with three serious pace bowlers, were brilliant against Sri Lanka when they lost. They played nowhere near as well against the Scots when they won.
Advocates of the associates should be wary of using that game in Dunedin to support their argument. There was some awful cricket played by two associate teams in what proved to be an utterly spell-binding contest and both sides admitted that after the game. One could argue that this was the best game of the tournament – and the worst. Certainly it was an infinitely preferable spectacle to watching Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in the field against Sri Lanka and West Indies. Between them they conceded 704 for three in 100 overs. And it was so much more captivating than West Indies succumbing to South Africa in Sydney on Friday by 257 runs.
Clearly there are some very fine cricketers among the associates. Just to start an argument here’s a possible combined team, which may not go down too well north of Hadrian’s Wall: Stirling (Ire), Joyce (Ire), Shenwari (Afg), Niall O’Brien (Ire), Nabi (Afg), Anwar (UAE), Wilson (Ire), Javed (UAE), Dockrell (Ire), Hassan (Afg), Shapoor (Afg). It is possible to select another team from the associates to give that one a good game. So I am converted to the notion of an expanded World Cup for 2019.
But there remains the problem of finding the best format. This is the 11th World Cup since 1975 and so far there have been seven different formats. The ICC is no nearer a permanent solution than those trying to find the best schedule for the English domestic season, which changes almost every year and which has been debated this week after the elevation of Colin Graves to chairman of the ECB.
The conflict is similar in both cases; it is inevitably between commercial priorities and cricketing ones. The commercial ones nearly always win. Graves has pointed out that the ideas for English cricket were only in a “strategy conversation summary”. To allay alarm he stressed that anything and everything could be tossed into the pot. (So where was a return to uncovered pitches and the rehabilitation of KP?)
There was a strange mix of the radical and the reactionary in that pot. For example, quite how county chairmen can think that because they prefer the idea of 40-over cricket at their grounds, the rest of the world will fall into line for the 2019 World Cup after a nod and wink from president Giles Clarke of the ECB beggars belief. Commercial imperatives certainly dictate our World Cups. The 2007 tournament in the Caribbean horrified the moneymen since Pakistan and, far more importantly, India were out within a fortnight. All that lovely TV advertising revenue went down the pan. That potential revenue also dictated the schedule for the 2011 tournament when the option of playing two matches on the same day was shunned and the format ensured that no team went home early. In an entrepreneurial age it is almost unbearable for those in charge to avoid the most lucrative option.
Yet there is still time to rethink the 2019 World Cup; indeed there is still more evidence to be gleaned from this one. After two weeks I want to see more of Ireland and Afghanistan in particular. They have so far shown sufficient talent and confidence to seek victory rather than respectability.
In contrast Scotland, so desolate after the defeat by Afghanistan, have underperformed. They can atone by beating Bangladesh at Nelson on Thursday, a result that would bring a broad smile to the new chairman of the ECB – or will he soon be the chairman of Cricket England and Wales since the ECB is apparently such a “toxic brand”? A Scottish victory would help England’s campaign greatly. And it would further bolster the argument for the associates.
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