Minnows have always been part of sport, almost as a tradition, and one isn’t talking about just cricket here. When the FIFA World Cup happens, teams go head-to-head with the giants from Europe and South America just to feature in the beautiful game. When the Olympics are staged, many nations participate only for its spirit alone and are not generally looking to win medals. Some of them can’t and instead indulge wholesomely in this once-in-a-lifetime experience. Every year in Formula One, teams show up at all tracks at all times, even though setting a fastest lap-time is a mirage let alone victory. The name Minardi is a minnow’s most glorious example.
So the question to ask is why the ICC is making such a fuss about associate nations participating in their showpiece tournament? A simple answer could be that they, perhaps, do not think of the ODI World Cup as their prime event anymore. That pedestal has been allotted to the T20 World Cup and, since that is a time-constricted tournament, its biennial appearance has only strengthened this approach. To think it will help the associate nations – and cricket in turn – grow is however a misconception. And to understand why so, we must look back at the history of this tournament whence it was born first in 1975.
They were all inexperienced teams back then, probably leaving aside only England who had given birth to this format a decade prior, West Indies who were then the most superior force ever known in this game and Australia who have this knack of learning and adapting quickly. Beyond these three, to expect any other side to end up victorious was asking a tad too much.
Even so, the learning process began earnestly as more and more ODIs were scheduled and played, and then World Series Cricket did its bid to further strengthen their cause. Only by exposing their players to the fifty-over format did the requisite growth in their play come in – India and Pakistan rose subsequently to challenge the powers that be, in 1983 and beyond.
1996 was the breakthrough year for also-rans. Through 1979 to 1992, Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka were the designated minnows even as other teams learnt how to play and excel. And so, one of them coming forth to claim the title was a marker for the future. The event had also encompassed Netherlands, UAE and Kenya for the first time, and then in 1999 came the turn of Bangladesh and Scotland. Think back to those times; Kenya’s shock win over West Indies got them listed in the official ODI standings and Bangladesh emerging surprise victors against Pakistan did much to earn them Test status.
Remember Ireland beating Pakistan in 2007 and then think that the game has started harnessing talent in USA, China and Afghanistan. Doesn’t the thought of seeing them play the mighty ones, in a longer format than one lasting three hours, excite you?
As one writes, India have played Bangladesh in an intense contest, Sri Lanka have beaten Canada to pulp and the Kiwis did the same to Kenya, Zimbabwe have been shown their place by Australia and England have just managed to brush past Netherlands. The excitement factor asked about above has been fully witnessed in the tournament opener and then when Lanka made their first appearance. Apart from that the flavour of stadiums filled up to the brim has been missing indeed. It is all a vicious circle you can say for close-finishes and tight contests will guarantee you a high box-office draw.
The Dutch bravado that made Andrew Strauss and his men perspire at Nagpur was witnessed by a crowd numbering only one-fifth of the capacity 45,000 that can be seated there. In that sense perhaps the Oranje will be cheered on by atleast double that when they play next.
Past experiences suggest that won’t necessarily happen and thus six matches for each of these lowly teams is a bit too many. Seeing as they played, one would want to argue but to what point? Kenya and Canada didn’t show the judicious approach needed to build an innings in 50 overs while Zimbabwe, after having done much hard work in the field, were blown away by a pace attack far beyond their control. Netherlands did show the heart to set up a 290-plus score but they didn’t have the bowlers to contain the opposition. Only Ireland are yet to play (at the time of writing) and hence should be able to gather enough from these pointers left behind.
Not many would classify Bangladesh in the minnows’ category; after all they are a Test playing nation. But they find mention here for none expect them to last a full championship winning distance, yet they are the side with the wherewithal to cause a mammoth upset. The one chance that came their way until now, they made the wrong decision after winning the toss. Will they be able to pull it together and learn from their mistakes? Will they be able to show the way forward to others behind them? Will these teams entice the masses enough to rouse up the remaining fixtures of this seemingly never-ending first round? And in doing so, will they be able to sway opinion in their favour?
The 2011 World Cup could give a much vaunted answer to these questions. Yes, the ICC has already made the decision to not allow more than ten nations from 2015 onwards, but such rulings have been overturned before and they will be overturned in the future. Almost in search of that reversal, as the first week of this tournament begins to edge towards its climax, everyone is eagerly awaiting that first upset!
© Cricket World 2011