Bob WoolmerONE of the major talking points, even before the 16 teams arrived in the Caribbean for this week's World Cup warm-up matches, was not who was going to win the tournament but should there be so many teams.

West Indian fast bowling legend Michael Holding and former England captain Michael Atherton were two of the most outspoken voices against the involvement of six associate nations which makes this - from tomorrow night's opening ceremony to the April 28 final - the largest and longest World Cup ever.

Whether the two commentators, as they are now, have changed their minds following Ireland's narrow defeat against South Africa on Monday and Bangladesh's victory against New Zealand - recent 3-0 conquerors of Australia - remains unknown but while certainly not in a minority of two, there has been plenty of encouragement for the 'minnows' in Trinidad this week.

One of their biggest supporters is Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer and he is in no doubt the associate nations deserve their place on the biggest stage.

"I am in the favour of 16 teams, absolutely. All the Associates need an incentive to get to this tournament, to improve their cricket within their country. They need a pathway for the youngsters to get to the top and they need someone to say that I can play for Ireland, I am going to stay and play, work hard and my target is the World Cup."

And, according to Woolmer, it is going to get better between now and the next World Cup.

"By the time we get to 2011 all the top six associate countries will have professional sides. The ICC are very sincere about them making that progress and one day there will be promotion and relegation between the top eight (Test nations) and the next level.

"I am a great believer in (sport) growing and not stagnating and saying we have got it right. At the moment we have 16 countries here, interest is huge and it very good for cricket," he added.

It must be said that Woolmer's support of the minnows is not a surprise. The former England opening batsman was with the ICC High Performance programme for the last World Cup, involved in preparing the three qualifiers for the tournament in Africa.

"With all the hard work that has gone in since then, to get the qualifiers into shape for this World Cup, I was not surprised by Ireland's display against South Africa."

And Woolmer would insist Ireland and their peers go further, much further.

"I think Associates should be playing 12 'Test matches' a year, four-day games, even five days. There is a cost factor there but I believe that without playing Test matches, one-day cricket will not improve.

"Just by playing one day cricket all the time doesn't improve you, but when a player scores a hundred in four or five-day cricket it gives him the confidence to play the one-day game and it's the same with the bowlers, learning how to bowl line and length.

"The Inter-Continental Cup was my brainchild really," Woolmer says proudly.When I was with ICC and with Andrew Eade, when he was development director, we started it in a very small way and it's nice to se how it has grown and hopefully it will grow even further."

So, who does Woolmer rate as favourites when Ireland meet Zimbabwe in their World Cup opener at Sabina Park on Thursday?

"Zimbabwe are a country in turmoil and their cricket is in turmoil. After Ireland's results in the warm-up games they will take that confidence into next week's game and Zimbabwe will be hard pushed to beat them."

Two days later the Pakistan coach will be in the opposite corner to Ireland's Adrian Birrell and he gives their second World Cup opponents this 'free advice'.

"We will not be treating Ireland lightly, and that was our attitude even before their game against South Africa. When a Test team plays an Associate now, it is real banana skin fixture."