The importance of being No. 13
World cricket is on the brink of fundamental change. After years dreading new developments from the International Cricket Council, burned too many times by news of the World Cup contracting or inadequate funding, Associate nations now await developments from Dubai with rather more hope. For all the focus upon Afghanistan and Ireland, and their imminent Test status, almost as significant is what awaits the winner of the World Cricket League Championship, which concludes in December: inclusion in a new 13-team ODI league from 2019 to 2022, guaranteeing 36 ODIs over three years against the top 12 teams in the world, half at home and half away.
To get a sense of how tantalising a prospect this is, consider that, beyond Afghanistan and Ireland, no Associates have played a single bilateral ODI against Test opposition since May 2014. Netherlands captain Peter Borren has played 12 ODIs against Test opposition over an 11-year career.
Providing the league is indeed voted through by the ICC, it would be transformational for whichever nation is elevated; Papua New Guinea and Scotland also have reasonable hopes. Netherlands, who were aghast at being removed from the English county structure, along with Scotland, after 2013, had a risible three internationals, across all formats, in ten months from March 2016 to January this year. Scotland played 26 List A matches in the summer of 2003 but just six last summer. Papua New Guinea, remarkably, have not played a single game against a Full Member since 1975.
The comparative abundance of matches awaiting the winners of the World Cricket League Championship would bring huge challenges but also the opportunity for players to improve by playing regularly against the world's best.
"Initially we might find wins hard to come by. It would be a big step up," reflects Borren. "The standard of our cricket would dramatically improve… I remember when we had a packed summer schedule in England's limited-overs competitions. It was remarkable how playing as a group week in week out improved our game." Malcolm Cannon, the chief executive of Cricket Scotland says that the early years for the 13th team would be trying, "but without this change, that [greater] competitiveness would never happen".
The fixtures would also improve the 13th team's prospects of retaining their best players for longer. Preston Mommsen, Scotland's highly regarded captain, retired last year, aged 29. "The decision would have definitely been harder," he says. Playing in the 13-team ODI league "would have given structure to our seasons, and would have given added purpose. More days of cricket would have meant more opportunity to develop as players and build on wins or losses, rather than playing and waiting six months for the next fixture, as we do now." All the training in the world only goes so far.
The opportunity presented by the top-level fixtures could be life-changing. Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi being signed by the IPL is the latest indication that T20 leagues are becoming more receptive to leading Associate cricketers. For a player in the 13th team in the league, how much, say, might an ODI century against India be worth, come T20 auctions around the world?
Yet for all the huge benefits to the Associate players in the 13th team, really the prize is altogether greater. Inclusion "would do wonders for Dutch cricket on many different levels," Borren believes.
Regular home matches against high-level opposition - based on the current ODI rankings, the 13th team could expect to host South Africa, New Zealand, England, Bangladesh, West Indies and Zimbabwe for three-match series over three summers - would be a signal of newfound cricket stature. While Papua New Guinea are already well supported by their government, for Scotland, and especially Netherlands, elevation to the ODI league could transform how their governments view cricket, and encourage them to unlock funding and open up greater investment in the sport in schools.
High-profile matches at home would also help atract new fans and players. How can you sell a sport to a new audience when the national team barely plays? The league would provide "a real chance to market the game better in this country," Borren says. "Imagine the possibilities when you have guaranteed fixtures against the top sides."
The financial benefits would also be huge. It is likely that the ICC will provide significant extra financial support to aid the new team, just as they did for Afghanistan and Ireland after their elevation to the 12-team ODI structure in 2015; the two receive a top-up of $1.7 million a year from the ICC as a result. But while Afghanistan and Ireland have only had a modest amount of extra fixtures against leading Test nations, all 13 teams in the ODI league would have a guaranteed package of matches to sell, and be responsible for selling the commercial rights to them. The 13th ODI team would be in a position to sell a three-year TV package of matches to broadcasters around the world, with the price of this package boosted by the fact that the games double as World Cup qualifiers. As Mommsen says, "Why would a company want to get behind us at the moment when we have nothing to sell them in terms of product - fixtures? That becomes a different story if we can guarantee a number of fixtures."
Add in money from TV deals, sponsorship and extra ICC cash, and the 13th team in the new ODI league could reasonably expect to receive an extra $10 million over three years. For countries that operate on no more than $2 million a year this bounty would change everything: they would no longer have to operate in such a straitjacket.
The amount available to spend on winning new fans and grass-roots funding would be transformed. Vast sums, at least compared to those today, could be spent on playing and training facilities and coaching, as well as A-team and underage matches, helping players improve, and making it easier to nurture home-grown talent. And more money could be spent on professional contracts too, which, together with the enticing fixture list, would make cricket more attractive relative to other sports for multi-talented young athletes. In the case of the Netherlands or Scotland, it would also surely encourage more players with roots in the country to move there.
Such possibilities, of course, bring great pressure: while a brave new world awaits the winner of the World Cricket League Championship, opportunities against Test opposition are likely to be as rare for the other seven teams as they are today, and finances almost as tight as now too.
No one knows how cutthroat Associate cricket can be quite like Netherlands: after years established as Associate cricket's third force, two defeats in January 2014 led to them losing their ODI status for four years and close to one-third of their funding. But if Netherlands can indeed win the World Cricket League Championship, their players will not merely secure a fixture list of the ilk they have always craved. They could also build a new foundation for the sport in the Netherlands, changing the game there forever. That is the real prize.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts