Something strange is afoot in the world of cricket. While every major world sports event boasts about the number of participating nations, cricket is a cocoon unto itself, preferring to close ranks around its most powerful participants. With the International Cricket Council drastically reducing the number of teams participating in the World Cup 2019 in England, and diminishing the already slim opportunities for associate teams to showcase both their talent and intent, this is a rather regressive scenario, one with long ranging impact on cricket’s globalisation plans.

At the height of a clamour to play and represent the sport, cricket has inexplicably and rather audaciously shut its doors on the associate members, miring the World Cup in controversy even before it has begun. While the ICC is going ahead with its 2010 plans – concocted at the behest of three rather powerful cricket boards, namely the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the England and Wales Cricket Board, and Cricket Australia – to curb the number of teams playing in the limited overs World Cup, the associate nations are up in arms over the fact that they look to the World Cup as their eventual ticket to Test cricket.

They are calling out the ICC and the full member nations on their appeasement tactics of increasing participation numbers at the ICC World Twenty20.

Sounding almost unhinged, the ICC, in the midst of the euphoria surrounding the last edition in 2015 in Australia-New Zealand, announced that it was adamant in its policy to reduce participating teams from 14 to 10 in the next two editions, 2019 and 2023.

This is a recurring anomaly. Nowhere in the world does a World Cup shrink! Any tournament that bears the word ‘world’ implies the highest level of competition of a worldwide sport or discipline, and looks at expansion, at least in the qualifying stages that decide the finalists for the big event. The repeated reduction – from sixteen teams to fourteen to ten – puts a question mark on the governing body’s true intent.

As if to highlight the stagnancy imposed on vibrant talent by denying them opportunity, Scotland last year pressed home the point made by their former captain Preston Mommsen at the 2015 World Cup, when he bluntly stated that the next World Cup “should not be called a World Cup” but rather a tournament of ten teams.

“Scotland proving yet again that reducing the World Cup is bonkers,” was how England’s former captain Michael Vaughan put it, after Scotland pushed England to ignominy, raking up a mammoth score and then winning a thriller in their first ever one-off bilateral one-day international match last June in Edinburgh, at a time when England were ranked the number one team in ODIs.

Sachin Tendulkar had previously described the shrinkage as “a backwards step” adding that “if we are to globalise this game, we have to get more and more people excited”. And Tendulkar spoke out once more, “Cricket has all the ingredients to become a global game. Teams with massive potential like Afghanistan, Ireland, Scotland along with many others have to be given more opportunities to play against the more experienced teams. Best way to provide exposure.”

If the results were a foregone conclusion, there would be no reason to host a World Cup, and there would be no audience for it. Any World Cup thrives because the best bring their A-game, and those on the sidelines raise the bar in keeping with the occasion to cause tumultuous but exciting upsets for the sport’s millions of spectators.

By cutting off the opportunity for the latter, it appeared the ICC was closing ranks in collusion with the sentiment of the powerful permanent member nations to protect the interests of their own. The contention was that it would make the game competitive, and therefore more viable to television and broadcasting rights.

More recently, Sandeep Lamichhane, Nepal’s young teenage sensation who has responded splendidly to being the first Nepalese cricketer to be picked at the Indian Premier League auction with remarkable performances, made a rather vivid statement, unafraid:

“Sorry to say, but a ten team World Cup will hurt a lot of players like me who will not be a part of it. It should be 14-16 teams. World Cup comes after every four years and teams can achieve their biggest dreams. We are an emerging nation and this is something we would love to play for our country. Even in 2023 there are again only 10 teams, so it will be a while before we can even think of playing in the 50-over event.”

This is the state of mind of a budding young cricketer who is making waves, and it speaks right to the heart of the matter about associate members being given opportunities to raise their own level, versus being culled from a World Cup event with no immediate prospect on the horizon.

Should the associate teams even invest in the remote possibility of making the World Cup by participating in the revamped qualification tournament with only two slots on offer for more than twenty contending teams? Aren’t their interests better served elsewhere in the absence of an incentive?

For an older but still grim perspective, reflect on the words of Sikander Raza after Zimbabwe, who like the West Indies were the two lower ranked full member nations, had to go through the qualification process for the final two slots for the ten team World Cup 2019. Languishing in decades of political turmoil and ICC apathy towards the cause of Zimbabwe’s struggling cricketers, the once Test playing team is a beleaguered unit, pressed to make up for lost time while being relegated to the doldrums:

“When I started playing cricket,” said Raza, “I thought it was to unite countries, with players of different backgrounds coming together to play this beautiful sport. Unfortunately, you’ll see that’s not going to happen in next year’s World Cup. It’s certainly quite a tough pill to swallow.”

Given the denial of opportunity on display, it is shocking when someone of the stature of former Indian cricketer Sunil Gavaskar approves the ICC’s decision, stating that qualification on “merit” was imperative for a platform at the world stage. It makes clearer the agenda of the powerful cricket boards that are arm-twisting the ICC into sending rather ambiguous messages about the intent behind expansion, particularly when, through these agencies, it is also pushing for Twenty20 to become the vehicle to represent cricket at world events.

The ICC could have easily retained its 14/16 member teams policy, while broadening the qualification process as well as slots for teams that do make the cutoff. Furthermore, one does not have to look far to know that once these teams receive ODI status, little changes for them or their cricketers, simply because the big playing league players rarely make time in their itinerary to include these teams as part of bilateral or triangular series.

Left to languish with a title but no pay, it is not surprising that when these teams are thrust into the limelight once in a blue moon, they find themselves either at the receiving end of a humbling lesson in disparity in experience and exposure, or faced with the exciting proposition of causing a major upset as Ireland did in 2011.

The ODI status accorded to the USA and Oman is tempered by the fact that Ireland, who have ODI status, will sit out the World Cup 2019 and have only a stiff and bleak prospect of qualifying for 2023, as does Scotland.

A more pointed fact lost on most so-called experts is that many of the associate members took it upon themselves to prepare for the platform that is the World Cup, to showcase not just their aspirations but also their eagerness to participate in the sport’s highest format, Test cricket. More than one associate nation contended that by relegating them to more opportunities in the World Twenty20 tournament, the ICC was shoving them down the track opposite to their dreams and ultimate aspirations.

For ICC chairman Shashank Manohar to make statements such as “Test cricket is dying” earlier this year, is in stark contrast to the explicitly stated agendas of these teams, which could only mean more for cricket’s globalisation plans. Outgoing ICC chief David Richardson was quoted as saying, “The aim is to make the major events as competitive as possible. Every match should be competitive and having ten teams at the 2019 World Cup will make sure that will be the case.”

But the competitive argument falls flat in the face of statistics.

Cricket has often held ambitions of being a world dominant sport à la football. The last edition of the FIFA World Cup featured 32 teams and 54 matches, played in just eighteen days in a high intensity, fast paced manner. The forthcoming ICC World Cup will be played over a month and a half, with ten teams playing more than 45 matches over that lengthy span.

Nearly half the matches featuring full member nations at the World Cup 2015 were one-sided affairs, while the associate nations battled it out amongst themselves in close-fisted contests. At the recently held ICC Champions Trophy in 2017 involving only full member nations over half the matches were one-sided, putting paid to the argument about competitiveness at top tier tournaments.

On the sidelines of Scotland’s enthralling win over England, their coach Grant Bradburn put it succinctly, “To compete and win sends a fantastic message to the world governing body that there are not just ten teams who are well capable of playing at the World Cup. There are three or four of our fellow associate member nations that need to be there as well. Obviously 2019 has been decided, but we hope common sense prevails and that decision for ten teams is reviewed for 2023.”

Bradburn added, speaking to the sentiment of the mass of cricket aficionados, “The idea of the governing body is to grow the game. And to shrink the World Cup is no way to grow the game.” Enough said.