Why it was unfair to make Afghanistan play in the Asia Cup qualifiers
Afghanistan’s rise to International cricket stardom started in 2014 with the Asia Cup. The fight and the passion for the game that the players from the war-torn nation displayed left a lasting impression on everyone. Their victory over the hosts Bangladesh was the highlight of their campaign, and it further cemented Afghanistan’s place in every cricket lover’s heart.
The upcoming Asia Cup would have been a great opportunity for Afghanistan to play more international games against the top sides, and to continue to improve. Sadly however, that won’t happen now.
Afghanistan were eliminated from the Asia Cup qualifiers and UAE sealed their spot for the main group. The UAE team won all three of their qualification games to go through, thus knocking out the other three teams.
However, it is hard to ignore that denying Afghanistan direct entry into the Asia Cup main group was very unfair.
Afghanistan are ranked above Bangladesh in T20 rankings
That is not to say UAE don’t deserve their place in the main draw of the tournament starting tomorrow; they clearly do. However, the ICC must explain why Afghanistan were required to earn their spot through a qualifier in the first place.
Afghanistan have surely done enough to have merited direct entry into the tournament. In the past year, they played two ODI and two T20 series against Zimbabwe and won each of them.
Granted, Zimbabwe are perhaps the weakest test playing nation, but they are still a test playing nation. It’s not often that a non-test playing side can boast of such a healthy record against a test playing side in cricket.
Above all though, the upcoming Asia Cup will be played in the T20 format, and in the ICC T20 rankings, Afghanistan are ranked higher than Bangladesh. But Bangladesh got a free pass into the main group, while Afghanistan had to try and earn their spot through a qualification tournament. Does that seem fair?
What message is ICC sending out to the associate nations? That their performances, results, rankings don’t mean anything, and that they will always be treated as weaker cricketing nations? That the rules that apply to them will be different from the ones that apply to the test playing nations? Is this really the message the governing body of a global sport should be sending out?
The ICC ignored Afghanistan’s excellent track record, and their ranking in the T20 table, and painted them with the same brush as every other associate cricketing nation. Did Afghanistan not deserve to have a direct entry into the Asia Cup main group?
“Associates, we don’t want you here”
Afghanistan are a good side, but even they will lose matches from time to time. There is no side in world cricket, or any sport, that is immune to losing every now and then. Good associate sides that can compete with a test playing nation in any format are a rarity.
The ICC must go out of its way to accommodate such competitive associate sides into major tournaments. This will ensure these sides get exposure and continue their progress. However, the cricket governing body seems to have adopted the exact opposite stance.
Instead of helping sides like Afghanistan, the ICC asks them to go through tough qualification processes where one defeat and one wrong step could lead to elimination.
This qualification requirement is not a one off. For every major cricketing tournament the associate nations have to go through qualification, regardless of what their rank is. Sooner or later even the best associate team is bound to slip up.
Losing one game is not a disaster in itself, but quite often, one loss makes all the difference between qualification into a global tournament and exit. That they will miss out on the Asia Cup is a blow to Afghanistan, but it’s a far bigger blow to the sport of cricket.
The message that's coming from the ICC is not one which the associate nations will find welcoming. When the cricket council took the regressive step of reducing the World Cup to just 10 teams, the message of “Associates, we don’t want you here” could not have been clearer.
There is presently an ugly class divide that exists in cricket, between the test playing nations on the one hand, and the non-test playing nations on the other. The test playing nations keep getting freebies from the ICC while the non-test playing teams are lucky if they get any leftovers. It's as if the ICC doesn’t want the associate nations, the supposedly poorer teams, to mix with the elite test playing nations.
World T20 will have a qualification round as well
Let’s take the example of the World T20 which starts soon. A qualification tournament was held last year, and it featured 14 non-test playing sides, of which 6 teams qualified for the World T20. At least that's what the ICC will claim.
What really happened though, was that the six teams merely qualified for a mini tournament, which will serve as a prequel to the actual World T20. This tournament will feature 8 teams, split into two groups. Only the group winners then qualify into the main World T20 tournament.
So the associate nations have a separate mini tournament, within the actual tournament, and have to jump through multiple qualification hoops before they are deemed worthy enough to take on the test playing sides. This mini-tournament serves as a second, much more stringent qualification round, where one slip means elimination.
Having the associate nations go through multiple qualification stages is seemingly some form of a purification ritual, and only those who finally emerge victorious are deemed to have been cleansed enough to be allowed by the ICC to mix with their elite and play a tournament as equals.
This is the true nature of nearly all ICC tournaments, and having a separate tournament for associate sides, within a global tournament, just feeds the class divide that exists in cricket.
For a game that is desperately in need of new competitive teams, the ICC’s antagonistic attitude towards the associate nations, especially the good ones, is hurting the game. Afghanistan is just the latest victim of this attitude. The ICC must start treating associate nations with much greater respect, or they risk taking cricket into the ground.