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Cricket news - Hints of a power shift in Associate politics at ICC meeting
Whilst the suspension of Zimbabwe's membership grabbed the headlines at last week's ICC meeting, a series of less remarked-upon developments suggested a nascent insurrectionary turn amongst Associates themselves that will concern the high-performance countries at the top of the Associate ladder, as well as a shift in ICC policy which will worry those at the bottom of the pile, namely the former Affiliate members that were granted Associate status last year.
The ICC is back down to 104 members again, after the long-suspended Royal Moroccan Cricket Federation were expelled, while Zambia and Croatia were handed suspensions at the meeting. Morocco's expulsion will surprise few, the RMCF having long failed to meet ICC accounting requirements, and indeed few involved in grass-roots cricket in the country were even aware of the news.
Zambia, who were notable no-shows at the Africa Southern Subregional WT20 Qualifiers last year, meanwhile seem to have fallen afoul of the same political interference rules as Zimbabwe, a faction disputing the re-election of ZCU Chair Reuben Chama having taken their complaint to the National Sports Council of Zambia.
Croatia's suspension will have attracted more attention from their peers, however. Of the 56 former Affiliates that were promoted to Associate status in 2017, several are struggling with the rather more stringent membership criteria to which they are expected to adhere. With youth participation figures trending down since 2016, Croatia appears to have been the most recent to fall victim to the greater scrutiny and higher standards imposed on the ICC's smallest members. Whilst fears of an expansive membership cull following the 2017 reforms have as yet failed to materialise, Croatia's suspension has put a host of former Affiliates on notice.
But at the other end of the ladder, events at the meeting also gave the strongest Associates reason to worry. At the Associates Formal Meeting ahead of the conference, the three Associates representatives on the ICC Chief Executives Committee, who also hold seats on the Development Committee, were subject to re-election. Of the three, Sumod Damodar of Botswana and former Bermuda Cricket CEO Neil Speight were duly returned, but the Netherlands' Betty Timmer was voted out, to be replaced by Vanuatu Cricket president Mark Stafford.
For followers of Associate politics, Timmer's defenestration will not come as a complete shock. The elections were the first to be held under a modified voting system where each board is allotted three votes (each of which must be cast). With Affiliates no longer voting through regional representatives, the balance of power has shifted decidedly in favour of smaller countries. It is little secret that the extra funding awarded to the Netherlands as WCL Champions (something in the region of a million USD intended to help prepare for their participation in the coming CWC ODI Super League) generated a great deal of resentment among smaller Associates, much of it directed at Timmer personally.
The KNCB chair was the target of a remarkably public campaign to unseat her, with an extraordinary pair of pseudonymous articles attacking Timmer and Cricket Scotland chair Tony Brian (initially by name) published on the Africa Cricket Association's official website [https://africacricket.com]. The first accuses the High Performance "clique" of "greed and selfishness" and the second lobbies openly for Stafford's election alongside Damodar and Speight. The ACA have apparently denied knowledge of the author but have declined to remove the articles in question.
Timmer herself was comparatively sanguine about her ouster, but questioned the balance of the new slate of delegates to the CEC and Development Committee which for the first time does not include a single high performance country. "I'm disappointed of course, and I'm afraid the current representation is not an ideal reflection of Associates cricket" Timmer said after the conference. As Associate Directors on the ICC Board, Scotland's Tony Brian and current Associate Chairman Imran Khwaja of Singapore are also up for election next year, and word is that the self-styled "reformist group" will be looking to replace them next.
The strategic target of this manoeuvering is likely to be a more redistributive apportioning of Associates funding, which remains skewed in favour of the better-performing countries (especially when participation grants for top-tier competitions are factored in) though considerably less so than when Ireland and Afghanistan were leading the pack. The most probable immediate outcome, however, is paralysis. Release of funding for the High Performance Programme, needing a triple check from the Development Committee, Finance and Commercial Affairs Committee and the ICC Board, may be held up indefinitely if no compromise is found. More generally, the redistributive agenda amongst smaller and mid-ranked Associates is likely to conflict with the ICC's traditional priority of targetted assistance to top-performing associates, with a view to maximising their competitiveness against full members at global events.
In regards global events Zimbabwe's suspension also raises questions, throwing into grave doubt their participation in the Women's and Men's T20 WC Qualifiers, which begin in Scotland next week and the UAE in October respectively, and perhaps even the CWC Super-League which begins next year. Any doubts about the ICC's resolve were quashed by the news that the four Zimbabwean players selected for the Women's Global Development Team tour to England this month had been axed from the squad, putting paid to any hopes that Zimbabwe might be spared the on-field consequences of suspension as Nepal and the USA have been.
It is likely too late for African runners-up Namibia to replace Zimbabwe at the Women's Qualifiers, but it seems probable that an extra qualifying slot will be open at the men's event. As yet there has been no word on whether the spot would go to Nigeria as third-place finishers at the Africa regional Qualifier, or whether the Asia region would be accorded another berth to compensate for the slot automatically claimed by the UAE as hosts, whether the place would go to the best-ranked team that would otherwise miss out, or whether the ICC will employ some other means of picking a lucky wildcard. The last three options will be of particular interest to Nepal's thousands of fans, who watched their side sink to an unexpected opening defeat at the hands of Qatar in the ongoing Asia Regional Finals today.
Scotland meanwhile may be eyeing up Zimbabwe's slot in the CWC Super-League, being next in line as runners-up to the Netherlands in the WCL Championship. Any putative Scottish participation in the Full Member league would nonetheless be complicated by the fact that the second-tier CWC League 2 will already be underway by then, Scotland themselves hosting Papua New Guinea and Oman the first tri-series next month. Moreover, given the new composition of the Associate delegation in Dubai, it is difficult to imagine Scotland now securing the same participation grant for the league that the Netherlands were awarded.
Indeed given that the new order in Associates cricket has entrenched a structural shift in influence away from high-performance countries, it is likely that in the long term the gap in funding between top Associates and lower-ranked Full Members will widen still further, and eventually be reflected on the field.
The beneficiaries, at least in the short term, will be the chasing pack, but if the Associate world's on-field representatives at high-profile competitions fail to perform, it is inevitable that both funding and opportunities will eventually dry up for all. Whatever the original intent of the ICC's Associate reforms, democratised mediocrity currently seems the most likely outcome.
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