Lately there has been a significant uproar because the Cricket ODI World Cup organizers have decided, after two appalling opening results, that the Associates should no longer be part of the Cricket World Cup. The reasons seem pressing and unquestionable: it is embarrassing for both sides when the differences in playing ability are so marked as to make the games feel pointless and laughable. Kenya vs. New Zealand, in particular, is emblematic of this disease. It is sad but true that the latter team, a full ICC Member, is eons superior to the former team, a qualified Associate, and this showed clearly on the cricket pitch. Clearly, this day was a debacle for cricket everywhere and should never be repeated, right?
Wrong. Consider the basic assumption that goes into the logic for excluding Associates from the ODI World Cup going forwards: that it is unseemly and demoralizing for the Associates in question for them to be so completely beaten on the international stage, and that it is, in effect, better for everyone if they are kept from such defeats. Compare this to the reality of College Basketball’s March Madness, where teams clearly hailing from lesser funding, fewer scholarship players, and less competitive leagues go up against the titans of the sport: yes, the 16-seeds are routinely obliterated, yes 20- and 30-point margins, crushing victories without question, are common and a part of the equation. But anyone who has ever seen the faces of the ‘minnows’ of college basketball – Canisius and Coppin State and Mississippi Valley State – as they enter the arena for that hopeless game, anyone who has watched them win their qualifying championship with the full awareness that they are little more than cannon fodder for the big boys, anyone who has watched them play and give everything on the court just to keep the margin low, and seen them lose with grace and even joy, that person knows how untrue the ICC’s assumption is. The truth is that, even for minnows, even for the weakest team in the tournament, there is more respect given for being on the same field and playing on an even level with the greats, even if that means a crushing defeat, than there is in winning their lower division, year in and year out, never having the opportunity to really test their limits. Even more importantly, consider the impact that a single, Cinderella-type upset has on the sport: when George Mason went on its run in 2006, the entire event became charged, tinged with magic; those whose teams had long fallen by the wayside found a common underdog to cheer for, and ratings went through the roof.
Moreover, at a time when cricket has much deeper problems in terms of finding its place in the sporting world at large, when the Olympics has just accepted the short, Twenty20 format as a trial sport and thus opened the floodgates to worldwide cricket participation, it stands to reason that limiting the participation of teams that have consistently shown their class in the shorter format is tantamount to cutting the older, one-day game off at the legs. Top-flight, elite-level cricket is not harmed by the inclusion of some weaker teams – yes, New Zealand trounced Kenya, and others will likely do the same, but the same New Zealand team will also have to play Australia next, and Sri Lanka and Pakistan as well. Excellent, Members-only cricket will also be played at this World Cup, have no fear of that.
More to the point, not all Associates have proven themselves incapable of playing with Members: It took England 49 overs and 294 runs to beat the Netherlands, in what stands out as perhaps the most gripping match of the Cup so far. When that same Netherlands team did actually beat England at Lord’s two Twenty20 World Cups ago, it galvanized the world of Associates cricket, breathing new life into their play and opening up the real possibility of upward mobility in the cricket world. More than that, the shocking upset drew eyes to the sport that would never have watched it otherwise, mine included.
And yet, now, the ICC in their wisdom have ordained that neither the morale of the Associates, nor the health of the ODI game, nor the potential excitement of fans worldwide, is more important than keeping the scorelines tight, and the social calendar for full Members even tighter. This is elitism, make no mistake, and it runs the risk of seriously harming the game. It should not be allowed to continue.