Nowhere close to being a world game

IMPORT: Tom Cooper, seen here playing for South Australia.
IMPORT: Tom Cooper, seen here playing for South Australia.

Wow, that world Twenty20 tournament has been a cracker, hasn't it? Nailbiting encounters wherever you look.

Sorry, you're quite right. The latest event bringing together the world's top cricket sides actually only starts in the early hours of tomorrow for New Zealand, with what could prove to be a pivotal encounter against England. None of the elite sides have actually featured yet.

And, in truth, I've not seen much of the action, in Bangladesh, thus far.

But I have paid some passing attention to what's been going on there this week. While the top eight in the global rankings have been playing warm-up matches, there have been some deadly serious games unfolding too, as cricket's minnows bid for a place in the tournament proper.

I watched a fair bit of the contest between Zimbabwe and the Netherlands, with the Africans getting home off the last ball, but only because I happened to stumble across it when flicking through channels.

Zimbabwe came in favoured to make it through to the so-called Super 10 stage, where they would join New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka and England in Group 1. But they faltered in their first game, losing to Ireland off the last ball, and at time of writing, with Ireland still to play the Netherlands and Zimbabwe to face the United Arab Emirates, both last night, that Super 10 place was still up for grabs. Only the UAE were out of the running, and Zimbabwe needed the Dutch to do them a favour by beating Ireland and bringing net run rates into play.

In the other qualifying pool, hosts Bangladesh were all but through early in the week, as our graphic in Thursday's paper indicated, but it briefly got interesting yesterday morning, when lowly Hong Kong knocked them over for just 108 and held on to win by two wickets. Hong Kong would have had to win it in the 14th over to put Bangladesh out, with Nepal, somewhat surprising winners against Afghanistan, going through.

Tense stuff, I'm sure you'll agree.

If you detect an element of sarcasm in that sentence, you're on the money. If I took a selfie now, I'm sure it would show my tongue in my cheek.

Not because I'm not interested, or because it's not really that tense, but because, again, those International Cricket Council (ICC) "Associate" countries are reduced to mere bit-part players and it's hard to take their contribution to the event seriously.

By this morning, Ireland could well have progressed to the Super 10 and earned themselves at least another four games, but they'd be the one team those cricketing powerhouses in the group would expect to beat and would likely head home licking their wounds before the business end of the event.

This isn't a criticism of those countries, not at all. It just makes me wonder what the ICC is doing to widen the base of the world game, because it never really seems like those associate countries get any closer to joining the cricketing mainstream.

In the past, when they've been included in the main draws of tournaments, as they have been in some World Cups - the 50-over format - there have been complaints about the events dragging on too long. Too many mismatches involving minnows up against members of cricket's elite.

Those criticisms have probably influenced the format at this World T20 event where, effectively, the associate countries are a sideshow that only diehard cricket fans in those countries would get excited about.

But shouldn't the point of getting those countries involved be to get them into the cricketing mainstream eventually?

The ICC could respond that in the last 35 years, Sri Lanka - most notably; Bangladesh - most recently; and Zimbabwe - on and off and on again - have come into the test fold, but only the Sri Lankans are genuinely competitive.

It's also true that rugby's real competitive base is just as restricted as cricket's. Only four countries have won the World Cup, and there are probably only three or four more who could even dream of joining them.

But the recent effective assumption of control over cricket by the three richest countries - India, England and Australia - has arguably moved the sport further away from becoming genuinely global.

Of course, that won't be the official version, but from where I'm sitting, it's the reality. Consider this; the Dutch team that ran Zimbabwe close this week contained two players born here, including Canterbury's Logan van Beek, two in South Africa, at least two in Australia, and opening bowler Mudassar Bukhari, born in Pakistan. The Hong Kong team who beat Bangladesh yesterday morning contained two players born in India and seven from Pakistan, with only two born locally.

Ireland have also used numerous overseas-born players in the past, and their best players, like Eoin Morgan and Boyd Rankin, are likely to end up playing for England.

So even some of those associate countries - certainly not all of them - seem to be getting as far as they are only on the back of imported players. Yes, it's true England have been described as South Africa B at times, but many of the players they've used grew up there.

It's clear, then, that for some of cricket's associate countries, not a lot of home-grown talent is coming through. For that to happen, the ICC needs to invest more money in development programmes, in my view.

Otherwise cricket can call itself a world game, but the reality will be something rather different.

The Timaru Herald