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March 19, 2007

Supporting the underdog

The World Cup is now well and truly underway and it has already produced a few surprises. Non-Test playing nations have been World Cup cricket since the tournament started with Sri Lanka (not a Test playing nation until 1981) and East Africa invited to play in the inaugural World Cup in England in 1975.

The inclusion of the lesser nations has lead to criticism from a number of senior figures in world cricket, saying that they devalue the tournament and provide meaningless games but they have provided enough upsets along the way to go some way to silencing their critics.

It took the minnows a while to get themselves into winning ways in World Cup cricket. There were no wins for the non test playing teams in the first two World Cups but despite this Sri Lanka did put up a decent fight against Australia in a group match in 1975. Australia lost the toss and were sent in to bat and in doing so attained what would then have been a colossal target of 328/5 from their 60 overs.

Ranjit Fernando got Sri Lanka off to a brisk start as he fulfilled what was possibly one of the earliest examples of a pinch hitting role. He fell for 22 off 18 balls at the score of 30/1 but his partner Sunil Wettimuny battled on and provided an anchor role for the other players to bat around. He eventually finished unbeaten on 53 after having to retire hurt. Sri Lanka eventually reached 276/4 from their allotted 60 overs and lost by 52 runs. It is perhaps not the result that is significant but the margin of it.

The fact that they only lost four wickets in their chase and still reached what would have been a challenging total in 1975 had they been batting first shows that the team had talent and determination.

The 1983 World Cup included tournament debutants Zimbabwe (who didn’t play their first test match until 1992.) There was a sixteen team qualifying tournament (which would later be known as the ICC Trophy) for the main event which took place in England in 1982 and only the eventual winner would be invited to play alongside the full member nations the following year.

It was a very professional and determined Zimbabwe team which came to England in 1982 and finished the tournament undefeated by beating Bermuda (who incidentally are playing their maiden World Cup this year) in the final.

Captain Duncan Fletcher (yes, the very same who is now England coach) hired South African rugby international as a coach and he brought with him a vigorous training program and a winning attitude. In the ICC trophy of 82, Zimbabwe played with a determination to win that meant finishing games early which caused lost revenue and upset crowds.

It was undoubtedly the professionalism that was brought to the Zimbabwe team that allowed them to win their maiden World Cup performance against Australia by 13 runs at Trent Bridge. They lost their remaining matches and didn’t make it through to the semi final stage of the tournament but they showed the potential that led them to be awarded Test status in 1992.

There have been a range of upsets in subsequent World Cups, possibly the most notable being Kenya’s performance in the 2003 World Cup where they reached the semi finals, the furthest that any of the minnows has ever gone in a World Cup.

Kenya’s performance in 2003 has perhaps been undermined by the fact that they received bonus points from a number of teams refusing to travel to Kenya to play for security reasons but they did manage to beat Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, Test Nations each of them, during the course of the tournament.

The current World Cup contains 6 associate members, the most there has been in a World Cup tournament and they are of mixed quality. Bermuda, Holland and Canada are not likely to provide any upsets in the tournament (although you can never discount anything in one day cricket) and Scotland also seem to be lacking the sparkle that teams that have caused unexpected results have had.

Kenya and Ireland however, are ones to look out for. Ireland especially are on top form, having tied with Zimbabwe and beaten Pakistan so far and look almost certain to qualify for the Super Eight stage.

The ICC is trying to spread cricket around the world and Ireland have certainly benefited from the ICC’s Associate tournaments such as the Intercontinental Cup which is a first class tournament for the minnows and the International Cricket League which is a One Day Tournament which was set up for the World Cup qualifiers to gain some match practice.

With a decent domestic structure in place in Ireland, as opposed to them relying on fielding a single team in the English one day tournament with the same status as a county, would help the nation develop. Ireland need to have a professional system in place so that their players can devote all their time to cricket and not have to use their holiday time at outside jobs to play for their country as they currently do.

The ICC’s Malcolm Speeds hinted in an interview on BBC’s Test Match Special radio coverage of the World Cup that the ICC would be looking to introduce one or two more nations to test status within the next ten years and if Ireland do implement a strong professional domestic structure they could well be a serious contender for a place at the top level of cricket.

Although not technically a minnow, Bangladesh are on of the lesser teams in world cricket today and have also got a good chance of an unexpected place in the Super Eights after a comprehensive win against India on Saturday. They have shown some promise of late in both Tests and ODIs; only a year ago they ran Australia very close to the wire in the first test of a two match series in Bangladesh.

With the double upsets of Saturday, both Ireland and Bangladesh will have the momentum. For the sake of the tournament and to add a bit of spice to some of the matches in the Super Eights, let’s hope they can carry it on and perhaps make it a World Cup for the underdogs.

Many people, players and commentators, complained about the number of lesser teams in the World Cup this year. It certainly seemed inevitable the structure meant that the progress of teams could be easily predicted. With each group containing two major nations and two lesser nations it appeared that the two major nations would progress and the two lesser teams would fall out but some spirited displays by the minnows have brought another level of excitement to the tournament and will hopefully raise the profile of the game in areas where it is not quite so well known.

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