DUBAI // Football is a sport which lends itself well to cliche-speak. One fail-safe that managers and players have overused increasingly in recent years is the maxim: "There are no easy games in international football these days."
Not like in cricket. These days, you can guarantee that at least one in every three 50-over international matches will be an uninspiring, one-sided "easy match", such is the surfeit of average sides playing the game. The situation could be about to get worse before it gets better. The powerful Asian bloc are lobbying for another of their members to get full one-day status - even though one of their existing Test sides, Bangladesh, are still patently unsuited to top-level cricket.
However, an end to the torpor could be in sight if the International Cricket Council's (ICC) significant new funding package proves successful. The game's Dubai-based rulers are set to grant US$300 million (Dh1bn) to aid the game's smaller nations, in a move termed the "biggest investment in global development by any sport outside football". Does it mean an end to dreary, non-competitive, mismatches? Let's hope so, because the gap between cricket's top sides and those from the second tier and below has never been greater.
Take for instance New Zealand's performance against Ireland in the tri-series in Scotland last week. Ireland have a fair case for being regarded as the best non-Test playing cricket nationand have beaten the West Indies and Pakistan in the recent past, yet the Black Caps thrashed them by a world record 290 runs in Aberdeen. Simultaneously, the UAE and Hong Kong were flying home after being dealt similar hidings at the Asia Cup in Pakistan.
The UAE are likely to be the big beneficiaries if the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) are successful in securing an extra place in the top division of the one-day game. Rightly so. The Emirates have the best facilities of any Associate nation - and put many Test-playing countries to shame as well. Due to the massive expatriate workforce, as well as the success of the Sharjah Cup - which put the Emirates on the global sport map in the 1980s and 90s - cricket has a keen following in the country.
There is no lack of talent, either, as proven by the performances of players like Zahid Shah, Mohammed Tauqir, Khurram Khan and Amjad Ali at the Asia Cup. Yet they still fell a long way short against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. So what do they need to do to be a genuinely competitive force? Following Sri Lanka's template would be a good start. The Teardrop Isle only played their first Test match in 1982, yet were kings of the world 14 years later.
Mahela Jayawardene, the current Sri Lanka captain, has always been a champion of the cause of the little nations. While the majority of pundits regard the presence of Associate nations, and the ensuing mismatches, as the major failing of tournaments like the World Cup, Jayawardene believes it is vital. He also has more than a passing interest in UAE cricket, due to a close friendship many of the Sri Lankan players share with the Emirati batsman Alawi Shukri.
Jayawardene believes Emiratis - indeed, home-grown players of any nationality - will be key to progression of the game. Much of the UAE's success has been founded on talented expatriate players who have move to the region to work. Now the UAE have committed to picking a quota of four Emirati players in every squad, and Jayawardene backed the UAE's new commitment to finding home- grown talent. He said: "I think it is important they have a domestic structure set up. It is good to have expatriates coming in an playing - but these are all part-time cricketers.
"To compete consistently at international level, and do as Sri Lanka did, to get on to the top level, they need to make more effort at grassroots level, get more kids involved in playing the game and actually have home-grown talent. "You can't play international cricket and be part-time as well. It is very important they get that structure sorted. But [the Asia Cup] was a very good start for them. If they keep playing matches like that, then that is good exposure for them, especially for the younger guys who played."