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by Matt Carter Saturday 22 March 2014
For decades the debate has raged regarding exactly how the Associate nations should be treated at major ICC tournaments.
The ICC has faced a difficult balancing act in regards to both providing these sides with exposure and development opportunities but at the same time ensuring the overall spectacle and competitive nature of the tournament isn’t damaged.
However in the current ICC World Twenty20 they might just have stumbled upon a winning formula. Six berths were made available through qualification, rather than the mere two that were allocated in the previous three editions of the tournament - with these six being joined by the two lowest ranked Full Member nations and separated into two groups.
What has transpired will have surpassed even the most optimistic of expectations, with the preliminary group stage delivering a glut of competitive cricket, drama and compelling stories.
Group B has been the greatest source of enthrallment, with two last-ball finishes and a quite remarkable final round of games in which the Netherlands successful pursuit of 190 inside 14.2 overs to oust both Ireland and Zimbabwe will go down in cricketing folklore.
Nonetheless Group A still brought its fair share of talking points, with the exploits of Nepal likely to be one of the more memorable tales of this tournament, whilst Hong Kong enjoyed a moment in the sun by downing Bangladesh on Thursday.
There were certain games that didn’t quite fulfil the palate such as the opening contest between hosts Bangladesh and Afghanistan but it would be unrealistic not to anticipate a selection of such clashes.
Of course not every tournament will be at the extreme end of the excitement scale in the manner we have witnessed here, nor will matches be as well received as they have been by a cricket-obsessed Bangladesh. Nonetheless if future tournaments can provide even half of what has been seen here then this latest method is one surely worth persisting with.
One of the concerns surrounding this revised format had been that it prolongs a tournament that’s success has largely been attributed to a short and snappy nature. Yet the group stages have acted as a perfect appetiser for the main event, building expectation for the arrival of the big boys.
Others had voiced unease that this approach limits opportunities to test Associates against the top sides of the game – which many argue is an important ingredient to improve their standard of cricket.
However it is very difficult to see what a side such as Nepal would take from being clattered by the likes of India and Australia, whilst watching their national side smashed from pillar to post is hardly likely to generate the kind of vociferous welcome the Nepalese returned home to on Friday.
It would be foolish to think these group games have not been high pressure environments for players used to playing in front of minimal spectators and a non-existent global audience – here they have had the luxury of showcasing their talents to a worldwide audience.
This exposure against sides on the next level of the talent scale, allows a chance for success that can captivate a nation, which in turn should reflect positively on the development of the game in that country.
Clashes against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh might not be perceived as glamorous dream tickets but it is far more realistic to expect Associate sides to show progress against these weaker Test nations rather than being thrown into the deep end against the highest ranked sides.
It is not just the winners either who will have been educated by their group stage experience, Afghanistan and Ireland have both been dealt harsh but important lessons in Bangladesh.
The Zimbabweans and Bangladeshi’s understandably won’t have welcomed mixing it with the Associates but the disparity between the two groups is far too rigid and this at least allows for those boundaries to be partially broken – whilst also providing incentive for the lowest ranked Test nations to avoid the bottom two positions.
It is worth highlighting that for two Associate nations there is potential for that chance to face off against the elite that the critics are asking for, further to that it is a reward hard earned having battled through three group games.
At the same time, coming through the group stage takes the successful sides into the Super 10s full of momentum thus increasing their hopes of a huge upset.
A change of tact in using the World Twenty20 as the main route of Associate development rather than the 50 over World Cup can only be beneficial, given the shorter format provides more realistic opportunities for Associate sides to make an impact – whilst these fixtures are far easier products for the ICC to market.
Not only that but its cycle of two years rather than the four of the World Cup, leads to sides consistently having a realistic target on the horizon to aim towards.
Increasing the number of sides competing can only be a good thing for world cricket, given a showcase event becomes achievable to an entire cluster of developing nations rather than a select few.
This in turn heightens qualification pressure, a key facet to progressing the cricket of Associates.
For instance had the same system been employed in for the 2012 tournament Namibia, rather than experiencing a demoralising failure despite an excellent campaign in which they won seven successive group games, would have qualified and been granted the chance to further develop their cricket.
After endless tournaments where Associate nations with the exception of Ireland, have flattered to deceive and brought about minimal cheer, to see so many positive narratives in Bangladesh makes a refreshing change.
Cricket should be seeking to consistently widen its net and the format employed in Bangladesh might just be the most viable way to balance overall competition within the tournament and Associate improvement.
What is certain is that what has been offered up in Bangladesh has done the profile of Associate cricket a world of good.
© Cricket World 2014