Cricket fans in Nepal and Afghanistan have reasons to be proud of their teams. So too do fans in Ireland and Namibia. Indeed, cricket fans like myself have grounds for feeling cheerful about where cricket is going. Things are not perfect; far from it. The International Cricket Council (ICC) reform promised is taking too long and is not clear enough. The contrast between the recent Rugby World Cup and the 2015 ODI World Cup highlighted how timid the ICC has been about opening cricket competitions up to more nations.
Why does the ICC seem to be playing down the idea of cricket as an Olympic sport instead of promoting it? And yet Nepal, Afghanistan and others have given us much to celebrate. I am struck by the critical remarks of some Nepalese fans online. Have they already forgotten that as recently as 2010, Nepal was in Division 5 of World Cricket? Forgotten that since then Paras Khadka and his teammates have won promotion after promotion, leapfrogging countries such as Canada and Kenya that have stagnated despite having a considerable head start?
Nepal’s recent Under-19 World Cup exploits (yes, exploits) have seen them finish 8th, above Test playing nations such as New Zealand and South Africa and above another Associate success story, Ireland. Their final match, against another talented young Associate side, Namibia, was nearly won, and the 15 run margin must have left the Nepalese with a number of regrets and “what if”s! Comments online before the Nepalese had even started their run chase varied from defeatist moaning about poor Nepalese batting to asserting the depth of the batting line up. In the end, during the final tense overs only inspired Namibian bowling by Fritz Coetzee prevented Prem Tamang and his team-mates from reaching a target that had seemed alternately within reach and unlikely as the game twisted and turned.
It is often said, but more often swiftly forgotten, that sport can transcend our everyday world. Not only do the athletes on the pitch try to push themselves as far as they can, the fans following (note that these days there may be more following online than present at the ground or even watching or listening) also find in the best matches a chance to focus on something else, a chance to block out for a precious moment hard times. Namibia vs Nepal pitted players from a country suffering extreme drought against counterparts from a land picking itself up from a devastating earthquake.
Here, for a few hours, however, one put these dreadful pictures to one side and celebrated the talent and temperament of the youngsters both countries had produced. I wish I knew whether there was TV, radio coverage or internet streaming enabling people in Katmandu and Windhoek to follow. Certainly in Kabul during the World Cup last year people must have been following attentively: unfortunately some were injured by jubilatory fans firing into the air after an Afghan victory! I like to think that the cricket team of Nepal made it possible for their compatriots to come together and dream of victory, no doubt scoring boundaries in their heads! I also like to think that unlike countries where success in a variety of sports leaves people with too many sports to follow, in Nepal and Afghanistan cricket is a national credo, maybe even a source of unity.
The fact that we now talk about Associates rather than “minnows” is itself a sign of respect and progress. The BBC commentators admitted that one of the most thrilling matches of the 2015 WC was Scotland versus Afghanistan, which went down to the wire, with both teams vying for a first WC win. For them this was no secondary dead rubber! Likewise, the recent series between Zimbabwe and Afghanistan have been exciting, so small has the margin for error been between a Test playing nation on one hand and an Associate that has blazed its way onto the cricket scene with a brio that livens up the ICC circuit and reminds us what sport is about.
A neutral observer that only saw the result of the four day ICC Cup match between the Netherlands and Scotland last autumn could be forgiven for supposing it was a rather dour or drab affair. However, a low-scoring game like that (with two innings below 150 runs) produces edge of the seat interest as each and every run counts. In the end a bowling spell of 4 for 1 from Borren left Scotland’s run chase in ruins and the Dutch with a valuable victory. The Scottish batsman Berrington had made a gritty 59 that in such circumstances felt like a heroic century in a lost cause.
Their Irish comrades have blown a wind of change through World Cups since 2007 with their giant-killing exploits, beating a Test nation in three successive tournaments, Pakistan, England and the West Indies. Thanks to them, Associate cricket has won credibility and arguments to push open the door leading to greater inclusion in international tournaments. Thanks to them the teams of Bangladesh, West Indies and Zimbabwe seem less complacent about their place in a “closed club”, matches seem edgier. Promotion through the divisions may now result in entrance to the highest tier, though there is much to explain about how this will work.
More change is needed. As a cricket player in France, where good cricket pitches only exist in dreams, and people mix up cricket and croquet (yes, I am serious) I am aware of the obstacles. So, reasons to be optimistic? Let me quote just a few: Nepalese spinners, Ireland’s never ending quest for Test status, swashbuckling Afghan determination, cricket slowly becoming familiar in the Middle East, women’s cricket spreading cricket to heretofore unknown shores like China and Thailand, vibrant youth teams in those countries wise enough to introduce cricket in schools. Associate cricket is like uncharted territory, with new high scores, new records, new rivalries and new teams. Only a pessimist would say that the glass of Associate Nations is half-full. Surely there is more to drink here than that, even if having to wait till August for the Ireland – Hong Kong match can only leave Associate fans terribly thirsty.