To watch Ireland’s Kevin O’Brien turn a down-and-out position into the greatest World Cup chase ever, was to both admire the strength of the human spirit and to applaud the beauty of sport © Getty Images
To watch Ireland’s Kevin O’Brien turn a down-and-out position into the greatest World Cup chase ever, was to both admire the strength of the human spirit and to applaud the beauty of sport © Getty Images

 

By Jamie Alter

 

There’s always a thrill watching the underdog take it to the opposition, no matter where your allegiance lies. And to watch Ireland’s Kevin O’Brien turn a down-and-out position into the greatest World Cup chase ever, was to both admire the strength of the human spirit and to applaud the beauty of sport.

 

Towards the end of Ireland’s unforgettable pursuit of England’s 327, the highest successful chase in World Cup history, I received a text message from a fellow cricket journalist on tour in Bangladesh. It read: “They are not playing as minnows/underdogs. They are playing like a team that wants to win, and knows how to”.

 

That’s the belief Associates need to cultivate, and that’s the difference between Ireland and the other Associates at the World Cup. Netherlands showed sparks of that against England, and the terse assessment of their captain Peter Borren after their annihilation by West Indies was indicative of how they take their cricket. But that has been sorely amiss with Canada and Kenya, leading to the debate about Associates at the World Cup.

 

All too often, innings like O’Brien’s are one-offs. In the eight years that have passed since Canada’s John Davison thumped a then record 67-ball century against West Indies, there has been no such innings by an Associate batsman until today. In 2007, Ireland’s Jeremy Bray carried his bat for 115 to set up a total of 221 against Zimbabwe at Kingston. Famously, Ireland kick-started their World Cup campaign by tying that match. It was a good innings, but not a shade on Davison or Ryan ten Doeschate or O’Brien. And Ireland failed to match such batting for the rest of the tournament, Niall O’Brien’s 72 against Pakistan aside.

 

Until Wednesday, no Ireland batsman had managed a century against a Test-playing opponent and it was their first century since Bray’s effort against Zimbabwe. Only one Netherlands batsman has crossed fifty since ten Doeschate’s knock against England. No Canadian has played an innings of note in a World Cup, and even Rizwan Cheema’s successive half-centuries in a tri-series in King City back in 2008 are remembered by few. It has been painful to watch a crocked Steve Tikolo, for nearly two decades the face of Kenyan cricket, struggle to put bat to ball. Tikolo’s case is a prime example of genuine talent – he was talked of as Test material back in the 90s – gone to waste in a country dogged by internal politics and a lack of vision.

 

Most Associate teams bowl and field well, but it is their batting which more often than not lets them down. We saw it when Canada played Sri Lanka and West Indies and Zimbabwe, when Kenya played Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and when Zimbabwe played Australia. We saw it during the 2007 World Cup, and there have been many more examples.

 

There has been much criticism of the Associates at the World Cup, some of it justified. But to cut off Associates from playing at the next World Cup is the wrong decision. Instead there must be a better process for inclusion, such as holding a qualifying tournament closer to the World Cup instead of two years prior, as the ICC did in 2008. And ten teams should be the rule, no more.

 

Ireland and Netherlands, to an extent, have shown that they belong. Ireland are by far the best of the Associates, and if they continue to do well in the tournament then certainly the future is rosy. As my former colleague Dileep Premachandran pointed out, Ireland aren’t asking for free lunches, just for a fair chance.

 

The challenge is to nurture talent, not ostracize it. A lack of publicity means a lack of role models, which in turn means a lack of youngsters taking up the sport. By allowing teams like Ireland and Netherlands have a go at big teams, and then having Ireland beat England, is a great way to break the trend. Young kids watching their national heroes battling it out in a World Cup can only help the game’s development.

 

Coming against the backdrop of a debate over whether Associate nations should participate in future World Cups, Ireland’s victory will be a two-fingered salute to critics of smaller teams. It is not a solution to the debate, but it does augur well for Associates cricket and especially Ireland’s push for full ODI status and the chance to compete with the big boys.

 

The most important thing now is for Ireland to use this victory and O’Brien’s innings to make a statement that they do belong, and that this was no one-off. Ireland should have beaten Bangladesh in Dhaka, but they have to forget that and work off the success in Bangalore. Similarly, teams like Netherlands – whose Twenty20 victory over England at Lord’s in 2009 and their fight against the same team last week – must continue to show the world that Associates cannot be taken lightly.

 

(Jamie Alter is a freelance cricket writer, having worked at ESPNcricinfo and All Sports Magazine.His first book, The History of World Cup Cricket, is out now)