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Tim Wigmore on the remarkable rise of Ireland and Afghanistan after both nations were granted Full Member Test status by the ICC…
Historic’ might just be the most overused word in cricket today. No game is complete without reference to a new record being set, no matter how spurious.
June 22, 2017, was not such a day. It was, instead, a seminal moment in cricket history: Afghanistan and Ireland were both awarded Full Membership of the ICC and, with it, Test status. Over 140 years, only ten previous countries had ever been afforded the right to play Tests, and none since Bangladesh in 2000.
Then, Kenya were by far the best-placed to become the 11th Test nation. But after reaching the semi-finals of the 2003 World Cup, Kenyan cricket collapsed, undermined by a toxic cocktail of an ageing team, administrative problems at home and, more than anything, the neglect of the rest of the cricketing world. In two years after the World Cup, Kenya played a paltry five ODIs. How on earth were they meant to improve or build interest in the sport?
At the turn of the century, Ireland were a ragtag cricket team. In 2001, they finished behind Denmark and the USA in the World Cup qualifiers, when they even used a journalist as a substitute fielder. Still, that was rather better than Afghanistan; they did not even play their first official international until 2004.
The rise of the two has been one of the most stirring stories across all sport this century. Their elevation is reward for the tenacity and skill of their players, forward-thinking innovation and sheer bloodymindedness, a stubborn refusal to accept cricket’s hierarchies.
In the case of Ireland, the joy is a little tempered by the team’s clear on-field decline in recent years. The inherent elitism and snobbiness of cricket means that new members – like Sri Lanka in 1982 and Zimbabwe a decade later – are often elevated when their teams are not as strong on the pitch as a few years earlier. That exposes the whole structure of the sport as anachronistic; the preoccupation with status comes at the expense of a fluid system governed by merit.
Even now, Afghanistan and Ireland aren’t being treated as the equals of Zimbabwe. The two former Associates will receive $40 million from the ICC over eight years; Zimbabwe will receive $92 million. Still, Afghanistan and Ireland will now receive twice as much ICC cash as before, helping them improve their infrastructure and in the case of Ireland, encourage players with Irish links to forge careers there rather than, say, Australia. For a Sheffield Shield player with Irish family links, playing for Ireland could now be as lucrative as a career in Australian domestic cricket.
For all the remaining frustrations, June 22 was a day for world cricket to savour: a club of ten belatedly became one of 12. Yet for the remaining 93 Associates it was altogether less cheery: the extra money given to India, combined with the funding increase for Afghanistan and Ireland, leaves only $160 million divided up between those 93 countries over eight years.
They have as much reason to rail against the inequities of the world game as Afghanistan and Ireland once did. But is anyone listening?