x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

The Irelands and Afghanistans of cricket need a lot more love

Fewer spots in cricket's 2015 World Cup closes the door on the Cinderella teams, which ultimately takes some charm away from the sport, writes Dileep Premachandran.

Ireland, in green, and Afghanistan more exposure against the bigger teams so they can realise their enormous potential, according to our columnist. Christopher Pike / The National
Ireland, in green, and Afghanistan more exposure against the bigger teams so they can realise their enormous potential, according to our columnist. Christopher Pike / The National

You have to go back a quarter-century to 1988, and Wimbledon's 1-0 triumph over a Liverpool side that Sir Tom Finney called the best he had ever seen, to find an FA Cup final upset comparable to the one that Wigan Athletic pulled off Saturday against Manchester City.

Despite football's tradition of Cinderella stories – Greece won Euro 2004 after starting the tournament as rank outsiders – the success of Roberto Martinez's side was a welcome shot in the arm for a sport that is becoming more and more skewed in favour of big-city clubs with rich benefactors.

Once upon a time, provincial teams such as Derby County, Nottingham Forest, St Etienne and Borussia Monchoengladbach could challenge the best at Europe's top table. These days, even Merseyside – centre of the European football universe in the mid-1980s – has been left behind.

In the year when tiny Watford finished second to Liverpool in the old English first division, a team given even less chance of success won cricket's World Cup. It is no exaggeration to say that cricket owes its overall financial success to that Indian triumph.

When an Indian took over the presidency of the ICC 16 years ago, it did not have more than £20,000 (Dh112,800) in its bank account. These days, it inks television deals worth billions.

That prosperity, the result of huge interest from Indian sponsors, owes everything to Kapil Dev's side, which catapulted the sport to an unrivalled status in the country.

Sadly, that wealth has come at a price. It has becoming increasingly difficult to see an India-like story in the sport's future. In the three decades since the mighty West Indies were beaten at Lord's, the sport has become less inclusive.

Compared to the encouragement that Sri Lanka got in their initial years, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh are treated like ugly step-sisters. Ireland and Afghanistan, who have shown genuine signs of progress in recent years, stand with faces pressed to the glass, on the outside looking in at the privileged few.

The fear of a marquee team like India being eliminated in the tournament's opening stages – as they were in 2007 – has seen the World Cup reduced to just 10 teams in 2015.

That would not seem so unfair if every team had an equal chance to qualify. But that is not the case.

For football's World Cup, even the elite sides – including Spain, the current holders – have to qualify.

Cricket's big-ticket event gives effortless entry to the established teams, regardless of whether they deserve to be there or not.

A 16- or 24-team tournament with groups of four would give more sides an opportunity to showcase their skills. There would also be chances for individuals like Kevin O'Brien and Ryan ten Doeschate to exhibit their ability to thrilling effect.

The problem with the last World Cup was not that there were too many so-called minnows playing. It was that the league phase was interminable, designed to ensure that the fancied teams made it through.

Reduce the chances of upsets, and half the charm of a competition is gone. Without the odd giant killing, all sporting narrative becomes mundane. Cricket can't afford to shut the door on the Indias of the future.

sports@thenational.ae

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