Ireland: best of the cricketing rest?

Even if Ireland had South Africa at 91 runs for eight wickets during a warm up match in Trinidad (before losing by 35 runs), Matthew Engel reckons that for all the International Cricket Council’s efforts expended on getting minor countries like Ireland into the World Cup, migration from the Indian sub continent is the best way to ensure the sport spreads beyond the current test countries.

Test cricket is played on all six continents (counting Guyana as South America and the rest of the Caribbean as North). It is, however, spread very thinly: there are just 10 teams. The same is supposed to go for those other British delicacies: Marmite and gentleman’s relish. That doesn’t stop them being tasty. And since cricket’s core market includes India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, numbers two, six and seven in the world population tables, it embraces a quarter of the planet’s inhabitants.

But cricket’s administrators are more ambitious than that. “No game can sustain itself in the long term if it is only played by 10 countries,” says Ehsan Mani, the former president of the International Cricket Council (ICC). This World Cup will be the first to include 16 teams. The problem is that there are only eight of any consequence so the first fortnight offers the dreary prospect of a succession of one-sided slaughters.

Scepticism is widespread within the first class game, if not commonly voiced:

Ricky Ponting, Australia’s captain, said this week that he thought the extra teams had no business being there. Michael Holding, the former West Indian fast bowler, supported this view: “What is gained by a team playing in the World Cup and getting absolutely hammered?” he asked.

This was brave of Holding, since he was giving an interview to the Royal Gazette in Bermuda. Nowhere is more excited about this event: Bermuda (pop: 60,000) is the smallest of the qualifiers. Most inhabitants of the other five minor countries (Kenya, Scotland, Ireland, Holland and Canada) are unaware of what’s happening and the cricket-loving minority are bracing themselves.

ICC chief executive Malcolm Speed cites Scotland and Kenya the minor teams to watch this year:

Kenya reached the semi-finals of the 2003 World Cup in Africa but that was a fluke – New Zealand refused to play in Nairobi (unsafe) and England in Harare (unacceptable). Since then, Kenya’s cricket has fallen apart amid allegations of corruption that shocked even their own hardened government. Though it is now recovering under new management, their prospects of becoming the 11th Test nation have receded.

Neither does Speed’s other example, Scotland, represent expansion. The Scots have played cricket for centuries and Donald Walker, sports editor of The Scotsman newspaper, thinks interest has hardly increased. The idea of Scotland joining the elite is absurd for several reasons. Attendances at cricket matches there are paltry (“Scots who like cricket are more inclined to play than watch,” says Walker) and the interest that exists is focused on England rather than Scotland. As Scots recognise but the ICC does not, it is a historical quirk that the British national team is called England. Any really gifted Scottish cricketer will follow the money and head south. The same applies in Ireland.

But, Engel argues, what expansion there has been (and this year’s Wisden Almanac includes reports from over a hundred different countries and territories), has come from migration, rather than structural investment:

…the driving force is the army of migrant workers emerging from the Indian subcontinent to build the 21st century. There is barely a country left on earth without some blokes playing cricket but, in the vast majority of cases, the locals’ role is to look on, baffled.

In terms of numbers, one place stands out. Cricket is now embedded across the United States, thanks almost invariably to Asian migrants. In the suburban parks of every large city, it isn’t hard to find Indians and Pakistanis playing to a reasonable standard and the local news vendor may well be up with the World Cup scores.

Not everyone thinks we are dead in the water before it begins. All (okay, just a few) Irish eyes will be turned to Sabina Park, in Kingston, for Ireland’s clash with Zimbabwe and our best chance of a win in the next fortnight. And, we hope, an early opportunity, for those not on a Lenten fast, to celebrate St Patrick’s Day a few days early!