Sports has always been a great leveller. It is replete with David versus Goliath-like battles. The triumph of the 'underdog' has been celebrated as much as the victory of the fancied. To expect the unexpected makes sport such an exciting commodity. When Netherlands set out on their mission to qualify for the Super-10 stage of the ICC World Twenty20, they had their task cut out - to score 193 in 14.1 overs against Ireland. The task was monumental but the spirits seldom faded away as they achieved the unthinkable.
In a run-fest at Sylhet, Netherlands stole the march ahead of Ireland and Zimbabwe to join the big boys in the main draw of the competition. In the other group, the likes of Nepal and Hong Kong showed no signs of stage fright. Bangladesh eventually qualified, but only just as Nepal finished on similar points but with an inferior Net-Run-Rate. From the minnows' point of view, their tussle to qualify went down to the final ball and even the ousted teams returned home with their heads held high. While their efforts are genuine and intended towards proving their mettle at the big stage, the big question is where a T20 World Cup is the right stage for them at all?
On March 16, Bangladesh hosted Afghanistan in the first qualifier. It had been a truly rosy period for the Afghans as far as their cricket was concerned. Despite their volatile political landscape, they managed to qualify for the qualifiers of the World Twenty20 and are also one of the four Associate nations to be part of the 14 teams to play the ICC World Cup in 2015.
In the game against Bangladesh, however, they came crashing back to reality. Put in to bat first, Afghanistan's batting imploded, more due to poor shot selection than Bangladesh's efforts on the field. The high-flying Afghans folded for 72 and lost the game by nine wickets. At the presentation ceremony, Afghanistan skipper Mohammad Nabi conceded that the plan was to go hammer and tongs against the Bangladesh bowlers and the 'tactic' clearly backfired.
What does a result like that do to the morale and confidence of an upcoming Associate nation after putting in months and years of hard work to get to that platform in the first place?
While it is commendable that the ICC roped in six 'minnows' to fight for two spots in the main draw, it is perhaps the wrong format to give them a go. While for a Full Member (the Test-playing nations), loss means returning to the drawing board and ironing out a few flaws, the repercussions of failure are far adverse for aspiring nations. For the likes of Ireland and even Netherlands, the aim is always to try and achieve Test status for which performances in ODIs, particularly in the World Cup tend to add weight. Bangladesh bagged that with wins over stronger opponents in the 1999 World Cup under Akram Khan and the current Associate nations are surely out there to try and sneak in to rub shoulders with the big boys in white flannels.
The recently-proposed ICC revamp that hands the control of cricket's governing body to the three bigwigs - BCCI, ECB and CA - gives rise to a growing concern that this will result in 'rich get richer, poor get poorer' syndrome. While there was initial murmur of the possibility of an 11th Test nation and that Bangladesh were promised of lucrative deals and tours with some of the big sides, their promises, for now, seem to be straight out an election manifesto.
With ICC's Future Tours Programme (FTP), that has listed out the schedule of tournaments between the Full Member nations, being replaced by a system that calls for individual boards to enter into bi-lateral 'contracts' to play each other, it remains to be seen how much a side like Bangladesh will benefit, given that the 'commercial viability' will be the most crucial factor while teams sign on the dotted lines to play in or against them.
If the ICC really cares to bridge the gap between the Big boys and the 'smaller' teams, it ought to invest its time, money and attention on giving them a fair chance in ICC World Cups and even do away with their presence in the T20 World Cup. The Associates and Affiliates on their part need to prioritize well. While the idea of sneaking a win from under a big team's nose in a T20I sounds exciting and liberating for a team that otherwise can't be spotted on a cricket map, it is the 50-over format that paints a better, if not truer, picture of their progress or lack of.