A gulf between the Associates
In a year of fragmentation all over the globe, the fissures within the Associate world became gaping. While Afghanistan and Ireland enjoyed unprecedented riches and opportunities, the other 93 Associate and Affiliate members of the ICC were left feeling more marginalised than ever.
After years of admirable performances, Afghanistan and Ireland were belatedly rewarded in boardrooms in 2016. Their inclusion in the 12-team ODI structure from 2015 yielded a bunch of high-profile fixtures against Full Members, with even more to come in 2017. Ireland's Inter-Provincial series gains first-class status from 2017. This was a quietly seminal moment for the world game: the first time that first-class status had ever been conferred upon a country that did not play Tests. Afghanistan hoped to win similar approval for their own multi-day competition, and began using Greater Noida, near Delhi, as their permanent home. Ireland also secured a lucrative new sponsorship deal, and were able to make significant investments in training facilities and in live-streaming all internationals.
Yet on the field, the two leading Associates had vastly divergent years.
The caricature of Afghanistan as inherently volatile began to look dated. They thrashed Zimbabwe to reach the main stage of the ICC World T20, where they performed strongly in three games, including reducing England to 57 for 6 and besting West Indies in their final match. As the team euphorically huddled around Chris Gayle for a selfie - they would be the only nation to beat West Indies in the tournament - it was a fitting reward, especially for Mohammad Shahzad, who batted with verve, chutzpah and wonderful skill throughout, impudently clearing his front leg to launch Kyle Abbott for 22 in an over against South Africa. Never did Shahzad depart from his cricketing creed, which he announced after a century in a bilateral T20I against Zimbabwe in January: "There is no plan, only to hit every ball to the boundary."
Away from the World T20, Afghanistan were consistently impressive. They began the year completing a 3-2 ODI win over Zimbabwe, and winning both T20Is in the series, and were admirable in a 2-1 ODI defeat in Bangladesh, when they lost the first game by seven runs. Shahzad, Rashid Khan and Mohammad Nabi excelled in the Bangladesh Premier League. And in Afghanistan's final game of the year, they lost a de facto Test match to England Lions by 48 runs.
The game confirmed Rashid as one of the most exhilarating cricketers to emerge anywhere in 2016. A legspinner combining unusual pace, a fine googly and admirable control with impish lower-order runs, Rashid took 12 for 122 and made 77 runs against England Lions, which added to the fine impression he had made in the World T20 and when the two leading Associates shared a 2-2 draw in a testy ODI series in Belfast. During this contest against Ireland, Nabi was condemned for running out Ed Joyce after chasing a ball down when it had clearly crossed the boundary edge. Beyond that series, Ireland barely won a game, enduring a hapless World T20 campaign and five comprehensive defeats by Full Members in ODIs, even if their form in the Intercontinental Cup remained immaculate.
Muddled thinking was a common problem. Ireland used 26 players across the year: opener Paul Stirling was moved to No. 6 in ODIs, then promptly back up again; and Barry McCarthy, a seam-bowling allrounder who was Ireland's breakout player of the year and performed impressively in county cricket, was briefly dropped after claiming 18 wickets in his first seven ODIs. It was worrying that even as Joyce turned 38, Ireland seemed more dependent on his graceful batting than ever. He scored Ireland's only two ODI centuries of the year, and was named their player of the year for the third time in four years.
Perhaps the most dispiriting piece of Associate news came from across the Irish Sea. Preston Mommsen was among the most dedicated and fittest of all Associate cricketers and, having just hit 111 not out and 80 not out during Scotland's 2-0 ODI win over the UAE in August, was batting better than ever, aged 29. So his retirement, in despair at a lack of opportunities - "something drastically needs to change in terms of actual game time for Associate teams", he warned - was a salutary reminder of the treatment of Associates beyond Afghanistan and Ireland. It was impossible to imagine the captain of a top-14 nation in basketball or rugby union - sports that cricket professes itself to be more popular than - retiring for the same reasons.
Mommsen's retirement added to a worrying trend of Associates being deprived of their best players. Namibia's Christi Viljoen has already retired from national duty to play in New Zealand first-class cricket. Hong Kong's Mark Chapman is playing there too, and slammed 157 in a one-dayer for Auckland to suggest that he could one day represent New Zealand, while Jamie Atkinson, Hong Kong's former captain, also now rarely plays after accepting a job as a full-time teacher, which was considerably more lucrative than the offer of a national contract. Such departures raise an unpalatable question: what chance do Associates have if they cannot even field their strongest teams?
Before Mommsen departed, he led Scotland to a first victory in an ICC global event, after 17 years and 21 matches of trying, against Hong Kong in Nagpur.
Besides Afghanistan's success, the Associates' involvement in the tournament left two abiding memories. The first was of Oman and their thrilling Himalayan ascent against Ireland - an achievement that highlighted the depth of Associate cricket, given that they were ranked 29th in one-day cricket at the time.
The second, altogether more sobering, was not of cricket at all, but rather of talking about not playing it. During the first stage of the tournament, Mommsen and Netherlands' Peter Borren repeatedly castigated the treatment of Associates - not just that they effectively had to qualify again for the main event of the World T20, having already come through a cutthroat qualifier the year before, but also their lack of matches against Full Members and, even more frustratingly, their lack of games against fellow top Associates. After returning from India, Netherlands played only three games in the rest of the year.
The Associates departed India having advanced their collective cause. They were even more impressive at the Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh. Three nations - Afghanistan, Namibia and Nepal - recorded notable victories over Full Members, and finished in the top nine places in the tournament, above New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe and the absent Australia. For Afghanistan and Nepal, this was the latest notable performance in the event. More delightfully unexpected was Namibia finishing seventh, en route recording their first victory over South Africa in any cricket.
For all this progress, an announcement by the ICC during the tournament served as a reminder of how Associates remain hampered by the lack of meritocracy in the sport. The ICC announced that, despite efforts by the management to implement a more egalitarian system, the ten Full Members would retain their automatic qualification. New rules gave an automatic berth to the highest-finishing Associate in the previous event, and left only one U-19 World Cup berth open to an Associate nation from Asia - meaning that one of Afghanistan and Nepal, who had both finished above four Full Members, would not make the next tournament.
There were other notable developments outside ICC events, including two instances of cricket thriving in unlikely circumstances. In Germany, a surge in Afghan refugees led to the nation's cricket being transformed. The number of teams and cricketers both increased three-fold in 2016, leaving the Deutscher Cricket Bund dependent on help from charities to keep up with demand for equipment. Hamid Wardak, a cricketer who hailed from Afghanistan, was named Germany's player of the year.
In Rwanda, where cricket has again showed its ability to overcome profound divisions, over 10,000 played the sport in 2016. The year ended with pitch construction completed at the country's first international stadium, in Kigali; the country's captain, Eric Dusingizimana, set a new Guinness world record by batting for 51 hours straight in the nets to raise funds for the stadium.
Meanwhile there were signs of progress in the USA. The ICC Americas team played in the Nagico50 at the start of the year, performing respectably without winning any matches; and the US hosted six Caribbean Premier League games and an India-West Indies T20I series. The national team, hosting an ICC tournament for the first time, won promotion to World Cricket League Division Three; a stunning catch from keeper Akeem Dodson even ranked fourth in ESPN SportsCenter's "Top 10 Plays", perhaps a window into the sport's potential in the USA. And the year ended with agreement reached on a new governance structure of the USA Cricket Association, holding out the promise that the ICC had succeeded in moving American cricket on from years of internecine squabbling.
There were significant developments among other top Associates too. The UAE qualified for the Asia T20 Cup, ahead of three teams who reached the World T20, where they squandered a winning position against Sri Lanka. Aided by playing in South Australian grade cricket, Papua New Guinea continued to improve, and have now won six consecutive games in the World Cricket League Championship. Nepal showed hints of their notable U-19 success being replicated at international level, and secured an impressive 50-over victory away against Netherlands, but their administrative turmoil continued, and the Cricket Association of Nepal was suspended by the ICC, who took temporary control of cricket in the country. Kenya played their first home matches in an ICC competition for four years.
And Hong Kong, who tied that World Cricket League series 1-1, were endlessly creative. The HK Blitz was formed, with Michael Clarke among those who played, and the existing four teams will grow to five from 2017, when the Hong Kong Sixes returns too. The side also arranged a high-quality tour of Australia, where Nizakat Khan scored a century against Sydney Thunder to confirm his status as one of the breakthrough Associate players of 2016.
Perhaps more importantly, streaming was emphasised - a model, surely, for other nations to follow to increase awareness of their teams and ultimately their ability to generate income independent of the ICC. Hearteningly, over 50,000 people watched streaming of Hong Kong's bilateral series with Papua New Guinea. The ICC was increasingly proactive in showing clips of Associate matches too, and there were over 20 million video views across World Cricket League Divisions Five and Four.
Such figures added to the feeling that Associate cricket is tantalisingly placed. There is certainly much to be hopeful about. Interest in Associate cricket - both in the Associates nations themselves and in the wider cricket world - is greater than it ever has been, and standards have never been better.
The coming months are likely to see the ICC confirm that Afghanistan and Ireland will be given Test status from 2019, perhaps as part of a new conference structure in Test cricket, and the World T20 reverting to being played every two years, which will generate another $400 million for the ICC every eight years, releasing more money for investment in the Associates; the main stage of the tournament is also likely to increase from ten teams to 12.
The ICC also wants to create a new 13-team ODI and T20I league, giving three Associates regular guaranteed competition against the Full Members. Most importantly, but most contentiously, the ICC also hopes to revise its revenue distribution structure to spread cricket's wealth around more equitably, which could mean more funds for Associates to organise regular fixtures. If all, or even most, of these mooted reforms materialise, Associate cricket will be left better placed than ever.
Yet Associates, especially those ranked below Afghanistan and Ireland, are familiar with disappointment. Recent years have followed a familiar ritual. Every looming ICC board meeting is billed as the most important ever, but brings only a press release announcing "progress", yet disappointingly few tangible reforms. Privately, many remained aghast at the ICC's intransigence over the ten-team World Cup, and increasingly worried that this will be the format in the 2023 tournament, as well as 2019. While a hefty gap in resources between Afghanistan and Ireland and the weakest Full Members remains - Zimbabwe still receive about $5 million more a year - the top two Associates now receive over twice as much from the ICC as those lurking just beneath. The chasm in funding and opportunities that has long existed between the bottom Full Members and top Associates is now almost matched by a similar gulf in resources between Afghanistan and Ireland and the rest of the Associate world, leaving many fearful about the sport beyond the world's top 12 nations.
For all the changes elsewhere in the world, 2016 ended largely as it had begun for the Associates - with a feeling that their future prospects were largely dependent on forces beyond their control.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts