WCL puts Associates' cricket in context
With the inaugural First Division tournament of the World Cricket League receding into history and the World Cup still nearly a month away, it is perhaps a good moment to reflect on the larger significance of that potentially historic competition in Nairobi.
In a purely cricketing sense, the ICC is justified in celebrating the success of this experiment in globalization. There was some very good cricket, and the WCL certainly had more than its fair share of tight finishes, with no fewer than seven matches going down to the wire - largely thanks to the tendency of the Scots and the Irish to dice with death, the former more successfully than the latter.
It was also a positive feature, in a certain sense, that the pre-tournament ‘big names', such as Steve Tikolo, Ryan Watson and David Hemp, played relatively small parts in the script, while young graduates of the ICC Winter Training Camps, like Ashish Bagai, William Porterfield and Hiren Varaiya, were strikingly successful.
If the leading Associates will be looking to the former group, and to others like Ryan ten Doeschate and Thomas Odoyo, the tournament's top allrounders, to make an impact in the Caribbean, it's an encouraging sign that younger, home-produced talents are showing increasing signs of maturity and consistency.
Yet realism tells us that the WCL confirmed two other truths: that Kenya remains, for all the problems they have experienced in recent years, distinctly the strongest of the Associate nations, and that there is still a substantial gap between all six Associates sides and the Test countries. That gap, perhaps, is less marked in the batting than in the bowling - the evidence of recent ODI encounters between the Big Ten and the Next Six tends to confirm this - but it really extends, in different degrees, to all aspects of the game.
For the ICC's global development strategy to be thoroughly vindicated in the face of the game's nay-sayers, we need more than just valiant defeats for the Associates in the World Cup - we need at least a couple of surprise results. If there were some hints in Nairobi of where these might come from, not only in the performances of the Kenyans, but also in the frequently splendid batting of the Irish, the steady bowling of the Scots, and in occasional flashes from the other sides, there was a prevailing sense that there were going to be some pretty depressing days as well.
The fact that Kenya is still a cut above the rest is, however, also a hopeful sign, for the Africans' greatest asset is experience. They had played more than 80 ODIs when the tournament started, with the Dutch the next most experienced, at barely 20; the Kenyan side in the final had a total of 471 ODIs under their belts, their Scottish opponents 146. There's no substitute for that kind of tuition.
Most of the Kenyans' previous matches, moreover, had been against the Test nations, the toughest and best school of hard knocks. And that's one of the limitations of the High Performance Program as it as present constituted: you learn something from playing against your peers, but infinitely more from a steady programme of games against your betters.
The HPP will only bear serious fruit when the Test countries are prepared to invest in the game's future by taking on more matches, lots more matches, against the top Associates. It would be cruel indeed if this brave experiment were to fail because the Big Ten lacked the vision to give it a real chance of success.
But there are also lessons to be learned from the off-field experience of Nairobi.
The ICC's decision to stage the tournament there, only finally confirmed six weeks before the first matches, was a bold one, and some of the consequences were problematic. Cricket Kenya did everything possible to make it a success, and one of the positive features is that Nairobi now has three high-quality venues.
But cricket is a game with technical demands in many areas, and it cannot be said that all the problems were satisfactorily resolved. The covering of the wickets, for example, left a good deal to be desired, especially at Gymkhana and Jaffrey, and matches were at times unnecessarily delayed because water had got through the covers overnight and soaked the pitch.
Potentially even more serious were difficulties with the scoring. When games are close, it's vital that all concerned can have confidence in the official scorers, and that was unfortunately not always the case in this tournament. In the case of one last-over result, officials took two hours after it was all over to establish an acceptable scorecard.
There were, certainly, particular reasons why the best Kenyan scorers were unavailable to the tournament organisers, but the fact remains that there were frequent discrepancies in team totals and batsmen's scores, that overs were attributed to the wrong bowlers on at least two occasions, and that the scoreboards often displayed the wrong score.
Not generally big enough errors to affect the result, perhaps, but in a sport which attaches as much importance to statistics as cricket does, the fact that official ODIs can be subject to such difficulties points to a real problem with the ICC's expansion programme. How can we guarantee the reliability of career statistics? One really worries about what will happen with the lower divisions of the WCL.
And we haven't yet touched on the difficulties with connectivity and communications. The arrangements made by Cricket Kenya and approved by the ICC were simply inadequate, and without the co-operation and support of AfricaOnline CricketEurope would not have been able to provide the extended coverage which we did. Gradually, in the course of the tournament, things got better for all concerned, but it had been a potential public relations disaster.
The moral of this story? The ICC's global strategy needs to take more account of the ‘paracricket' - all the support services, such as ground staff, scorers and scoreboard operators, without which the game cannot be played at the highest level. And also of such facilities as internet connectivity, a key means by which cricket has become, and will continue to become, truly global.