Alvin Sallay

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 February, 2011, 12:00am

The World Cup of willow and leather ball begins next Saturday at the Shere Bangla National Stadium in Mirpur when co-hosts Bangladesh and India meet in the opening game of the 49-match tournament. At the end of this marathon, one team will have the bragging rights for the next four years, and being a professional and unbiased commentator, I bet it will be Sri Lanka, the other host nation.

The numbers might sound frightening - 49 matches in 42 days - but when you consider that only 14 teams are taking part, it once again raises the question of cricket being a 'world' sport like soccer. I use soccer as an example simply because this is the ultimate measuring stick. Fifa has 208 members, more than the International Olympic Committee, which has 205. The United Nations comes in a poor third with only 192.

The International Cricket Council, the world governing body, has 105 members, a healthy number if not for the fact it is still regarded as a closed shop with only 10 full members. The rest are made up of 35 associate members - Hong Kong being one - and 60 affiliates. To win the World Cup - the one-day version - has been the ultimate prize in the game (although traditionalists will still claim test matches like the Ashes take precedence) and this has been the goal of members like Hong Kong. But last month, ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat poured cold water on such lofty ambitions when he confirmed the World Cup would become an even more closed shop from 2015, when the next edition takes place in Australia.

From its current 14-strong field, it will be reduced to 10. One of the reasons trotted out by the ICC is that the World Cup is too unwieldy in terms of the tournament's length. Indeed, only the rabid fan will stay in front of the box for 49 days - and there are millions of them. But in a bid to shorten the tournament, it has been decided to cull numbers. By doing this, the ICC has in one foul swoop taken away a prized incentive for associate and affiliate members who have always looked to the World Cup as the Holy Grail. Hong Kong have played in the ICC Trophy, a qualifying tournament for the World Cup, but have always fallen short. This tournament is no more, with the ICC restructuring the world into divisions. Last month, Hong Kong qualified for division two, one step from the associate member big boys like Ireland and the Netherlands. But it doesn't mean Hong Kong are one step closer to qualifying for the 2015 World Cup because the ICC hasn't decided which 10 teams will play.

A debate is raging right now whether these 10 teams should be the test sides only, or if the bottom two - Zimbabwe and Bangladesh - should take part in a wider qualifying event with other associate members for the final two spots. Whatever the decision, the bottom line is there are fewer chances for associate members like Hong Kong to play in a World Cup. This is a huge blow to the game itself. But the ICC doesn't think so.

Lorgat said the World Twenty20 was now the pathway for developing nations. He reasoned: 'It is a format which is more suited to providing the opportunity for the associates as it is played every two years instead of every four.' A more plausible rationale for reducing numbers from 14 to 10 - this time the four associate members who have qualified are Canada, Kenya, Ireland and the Netherlands - is the ICC wants to ensure the format of future World Cups ensures that big names like India are in the running until the end of the competition.

India, with its hundreds of millions of fans, is the game's biggest market. It would be a nightmare if Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his team were eliminated in the early stages like last time in the Caribbean when India lost to Bangladesh to effectively depart the tournament. With Ireland upsetting Pakistan on the same day, the elimination of two of the game's most entertaining and crowd-pulling sides was bad news for the ICC chiefs. They knew that for the tournament to be a success, in terms of live audiences watching, the big names in the game needed to be around.

Lorgat vehemently denied this was why numbers have been reduced, although admitting the duration might have been a cause. If this is the case, then the ICC should look at another format for the competition, and perhaps even have increased numbers to 16 so as to have a preliminary round of four groups instead of the unwieldy two groups of seven teams.

If the soccer World Cup can host 32 teams and finish in one month, why cannot cricket follow suit? Instead of becoming a true global sport, the ICC has bunkered down and gone the other way, just to ensure its television ratings don't suffer. It is high time the ICC became more progressive. It has been 11 years since they last opened the doors to an outsider - Bangladesh being admitted as a full member. When will they decide that a team like Ireland is more than ready to hold their own in the test arena.

The inability to bend with the wind has turned the ICC into a creaking and outdated structure. On the one hand they trumpet the game's development in places like China but on the other hand they close the door on the emerging nations. Is Twenty20 cricket all that associate members can look forward to? They might as well take up gurning, a rural English tradition where people distort facial expressions. Exasperation with the ICC will give them a head start.