The spectre of Covid

Whilst it's been pleasant to see announcements of upcoming series in Europe with Belgium announcing three series for their men's team against Malta, Austria and Romania, whilst Germany announcing a series for their women's side against France, all accompanied by a busy programme of ICC pathway events, news out of Pakistan and Bangladesh has reminded us that, despite a progression towards normality, the Covid-19 pandemic is still hovering over our heads

The Pakistan Super League was postponed halfway through the group stage after six players and an official tested positive for the virus, whilst an Ireland Wolves tour match in Bangladesh was abandoned after a laboratory reported that one of the Irish players had tested positive.

With what - for associate cricket at least - is a packed calendar with a tight deadline for completion given the dates of World Cups and their associated qualifiers, a similar situation in one of these events could have a chaotic impact on the schedule.

There are very few fully professional teams involved in the pathway, so having multiple periods of absence from work in the event of mid-tournament postponements may not be an option. Not every country has the strength in-depth to enable them to compete at their usual level when players are absent. The requirement in many countries for quarantine periods before being allowed to enter may also be an obstacle. Taking a week off work to play a tournament is one thing, but two weeks of quarantine either side of that will stretch even the friendliest employer, especially if done twice in a year.

The nature of tournaments, where even a six team event has over 100 players, coaches and officials often all staying in the same hotel isn't necessarily conducive to good practice for avoiding transmission of the virus. The potential impact of any carelessness with bio-secure protocols is obvious.

Three ICC pathway events have already been postponed and murmurs out of Dubai suggest that the ICC have contingency plans including the possibility of a large "bubble" style event if there are several more postponements. With vaccine roll-out inconsistent across the world, it's more a question of when, not if, there are more such postponements.

USA development

Cricket in the USA has long been both a personal obsession for me and an area of significant interest for the ICC. With USACA now firmly kicked into the long grass, the new governing body USA Cricket announced last week an eight team national Under-19 Championship to take place in Texas early next month.

Under-19 players of the past in the US have often expressed concern at limited opportunities for them in the senior side with young American born and/or developed players often missing out to players with first-class experience in other countries. Of their squad at the 2010 Under-19 World Cup - the vast majority of whom were US born - only Steven Taylor is now a regular in the senior side with most only getting a few games. Meanwhile the Irish side they played during the event featured current Irish captain Andy Balbirnie in addition to Paul Stirling and George Dockerell.

Maybe this generation of USA Under-19 players won't suffer the same fate as their predecessors, but with the selection policy of the senior side seemingly being to recruit players from overseas with the promise of big money Major League Cricket contracts, it isn't looking promising.

Everest Premier League returning

Franchise leagues in associate cricket don't have the greatest reputation, with several aborted attempts in the USA, payment issues in the Canada Global T20 and the whole sorry saga of the Euro T20 Slam.

An exception though has been the Everest Premier League in Nepal, with all involved saying that they have throughly enjoyed the experience of playing in front of the passionate Nepali fan base. The 2018 edition featured several Dutch and Irish players along with Rashid Khan and the local Nepal contingent, whilst the cancelled 2020 edition was set to feature Chris Gayle.

So it was welcome to see the announcement this week that the league will return in September. Organisers are promising one of the biggest ever sports events in Nepal. No players have been announced at the time of writing, and the organisers will be hoping that the pandemic will have abated enough to allow them to have the usual raucous Nepali crowds in attendance.

Privately run franchise leagues have had an interesting place in Nepal in recent years with the long running ICC suspension of the Cricket Association of Nepal meaning that they essentially became the main domestic tournaments in the country. In addition to the EPL, there is also the Pokhara Premier League and the Dhangadhi Premier League.

Whilst CAN are now back in the good graces of the ICC, these by now established leagues are likely to continue playing a key role in Nepal.

Switzerland planning their return

Cricket Switzerland are ramping up their domestic competition as they prepare for potential readmission to the ICC fold. After being expelled in 2012 due to having two rival governing bodies, there is now just one and they plan to apply for ICC membership this year.

This week they announced the introduction of a national 8-team 40 over league - as required by ICC membership criteria - which will begin play in April. A 15 team second tier - divided into three regional groups - will also form part of the domestic structure.

The ICC has seemingly had a "one in, one out" policy in recent years, with new members often happening at the same time as expelled ones. So far there have been five 105th members of the ICC. Will Switzerland be the sixth 105th member or will we have a 106th member?