Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 27 February 2011





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Give the minnows a chance

I do not usually write about sports, but a recent news item prompted me to pen these words. Cricket’s governing body, which has been experimenting on and off with the format of the sport’s premier tournament, has announced that from 2015, the Cricket World Cup will be restricted to the top 10 teams in the world - in other words, the 10 Test playing nations.

The ICC has also announced that the number of teams in the Twenty20 World Cup would be increased to 16, saying that is the best platform for smaller teams. But quickfire Twenty20 Cricket is not the best forum for developing a country’s cricketing talents.

There seems to be a paradox here. The ICC wants to make cricket a global sport, just like soccer. Towards this end, it has appointed development officers for the various regions. Cricket is catching up fast in countries such as the USA, China, Germany and France where even a few years ago, no one has even heard of cricket the sport, as opposed to cricket the insect.

It is in the best interest of the game to have a wider audience - in fact, this year’s showpiece event is being telecast to over 188 countries.

By definition, a ‘world cup’ means the broadest possible participation of teams from around the globe. For example, the Soccer World Cup held last year in South Africa had 32 teams from all corners of the planet. Among them were a number of unfancied teams from Asia, Africa and the Americas. These teams didn’t even make it past the first round, but that was literally part of the game. Give them a few years, they will be much better.

We should abandon the notion that the smaller teams are there to make up the numbers. They are there to play and improve their game. They gain exposure to the highest levels of the game - and get exposed to a wider audience around the world. That is part and parcel of their development.

Thus the ICC’s decision to truncate the tournament is at odds with the spirit of the game. Let’s face it, cricket is a highly unpredictable game. Anything can happen on a given day. The team that plays well wins the game - and that team can be the underdogs.

Where would Sri Lanka be if the previous administrators at the ICC restricted participation to the top teams of the world? Remember, we gained ICC Test Status only in 1981, although the first Test was actually played one year later, in 1982. But Sri Lanka did participate in the inaugural ICC Cricket World Cup and also in the next edition in 1979, creating many memorable moments. Sri Lanka participated in a World Cup as a Full Member of the ICC only in 1983. Participating in World Cup tournaments certainly helped Sri Lanka in its journey towards Test Status - and towards becoming a better team overall.

We were generally regarded as minnows or ‘easybeats’ years after we gained Test status. Sri Lanka, once ‘no-hopers’ are among the top favourites to lift the trophy again this year. Yes, Sri Lanka became World Champions just 21 years after its entry to the World Cup as also-rans.

The lesson here is that all teams should be given an equal chance. A chance to shine, a chance to develop their game and a chance to gain Test/One-Day status. They should have an opportunity to play with the big boys. Otherwise they will languish where they are, without any improvement.

Sri Lanka is a world-beating side today, because someone at the ICC was farsighted enough to allow minnows to play at the highest level in 1975. Ireland, Netherlands, Kenya and Canada find themselves in much the same situation today. Give them two decades of top quality cricket and who knows, they could emerge champions of the world some day. But to announce that they would be ‘out of the next World Cup’ even before the present one is over is highly demoralizing for these teams hoping to make it big.

Moreover, smaller teams add lustre and spice to a tournament that would otherwise be a ‘big wigs only’ affair. Due to the very unpredictable nature of cricket, they can send sometimes the big teams reeling. In fact, Sri Lanka was the first ‘small team’ to create such an upset at a World Cup.

Sri Lanka were unfancied 32 years ago in England. New Zealand proved that with a nine-wicket win against Sri Lanka in the opening clash of the event and India lined up to do the same a few days later at Old Trafford. Batting first Sri Lanka managed a competitive 238 from their 60 overs. (Note: Today’s tournament is a 50-over event). India, however, couldn’t handle the Tony Opatha (3-31) and Somachandra de Silva (3-29) double act and crashed out for 191. It was the first time a Test-playing nation had been rolled by a non-Test playing nation at the ICC World Cup.

Among the other famous upsets achieved by no-hopers are Zimbabwe’s 1983 victory over Australia, Kenya’s knock over the Windies in 1996, Ireland’s humbling of Pakistan in 2007 and Bangladesh’s victory over India in the same year. In fact, both India and Pakistan could not go beyond the first round, A Canadian held the record for the fastest World Cup century. This year, Netherlands very nearly defeated England and we do not know what might happen over the next few days.

However, the World Cup is not the only thing that matters. These countries should be given more opportunities in the four intervening years to play against each other and of course, the main and ‘A’ teams of Full Members. These matches should be televised where possible. The ICC should secure sponsorship deals for the emerging teams.

Their internal cricket structure (school cricket, club cricket etc) as well as cricketing infrastructure (grounds, indoor nets etc) should be developed. Full Member countries should ‘lend’ their second-level coaches to these countries.

Cricket is becoming a global game - there is no doubt about that. The ICC must give the emerging teams a chance to perform at the highest levels to enhance the global visibility and appeal of the game. The Cricket World Cup is already the third biggest global sporting event - and the ICC should strive to make it the second, behind only the FIFA Soccer World Cup and pushing the Olympics to third place.



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