The interminably long group stage of the Cricket World Cup will finally come to an end Sunday. Unfortunately, it appears that it will coincide with the extinction of Associate teams from future World Cups.
As mentioned at the start of the World Cup, the Associates are cricket's version of mid-majors in college basketball. Ireland entered this tournament playing on the same level Gonzaga was a decade ago. On March 2, they pulled off one of the biggest upsets in cricket history to defeat England. Since then, they've engaged in scrappy fights with India and West Indies as well. Ireland still has a shot at qualifying for the quarterfinals, but the odds are stacked heavily against them.
Even worse, they are currently on the outside looking in at qualifying for the 2015 World Cup. Instead of being encouraged to continue the progress they've made by being given more opportunities to play against elite competition, the game's governing body wants to deny them.
What seems lost on the ICC in its decision to have a 10-team World Cup in 2015 is that it's not the results that matter for Associates, but the chance to compete. Teams like Canada, the Netherlands and Kenya are not delusional enough to think they can win the World Cup. The ICC's mistake is to focus on the destination and not the journey. If the test nations are the only teams good enough to win the World Cup, the ICC's reasoning says they should be the only ones allowed to play for it, too.
College basketball analyst Jay Bilas was fired up on ESPN after this year's 68-team NCAA field was unveiled. After comparing RPI numbers, quality wins and other selection criteria, he touched on another vital reason he was so enraged that Colorado didn't receive an at-large bid, and it's something that directly relates to the situation of the Associates in cricket. "Winning the tournament is no longer the Holy Grail," Bilas said. "The Holy Grail is getting into the Dance."
People like Harold "The Show" Arceneaux and Bryce Drew are the heart and soul of the NCAA tournament, not Kansas or Duke. Weber State and Valparaiso were never going to win the national title, but the entertainment and priceless moments they generated in beating North Carolina and Mississippi are why fans watch the games. One of the best NCAA tournament games of the past decade was a second-round matchup between Arizona and Gonzaga in 2003. Gonzaga lost 96-95 in overtime, but they had the opportunity to stand toe-to-toe with a No. 1 seed for a chance at glory.
Likewise, Kevin O'Brien's 50-ball century against England on the way to a famous Irish win will be remembered far longer than any century scored by AB de Villiers or Sachin Tendulkar from this World Cup. What do people talk about most from the 2003 World Cup? John Davison's 67-ball century against the West Indies. No one cares that India scored 413 runs against Bermuda in 2007. They care that Dwayne Leverock defied gravity to pull off a one-handed catch dismissing Robin Uthappa.
Watching the Associates at this World Cup has been compelling because they are endangered species. Ryan ten Doeschate's century against England was gripping, not only because it almost propelled his team to a massive upset, but also because it could be the last one ever scored for the Netherlands at a World Cup. Ashish Bagai, Jimmy Hansra, Tanmay Mishra and Collins Obuya all provided similar drama over the weekend. Even though Canada and Kenya were destined for defeat to New Zealand and Australia, respectively, those players came so close to reaching a milestone that they can tell their grandkids about: a century against a Test nation.
Winning the Cricket World Cup is not the Holy Grail for the Associates. Getting into the dance is. The ICC fails to understand this. Irish captain William Porterfield said at the start of the tournament that his team's goal was to make the quarterfinals. They are not out to win the World Cup, at least not yet. They are out to compete. Denying them that chance in 2015 and beyond might mean more money for the ICC's elite, but it will rob fans of some of the best moments any sport has to offer.
Peter Della Penna is an American-born and raised cricket journalist who writes for ESPNcricinfo.com and DreamCricket.com. His work has also appeared in "The Wisden Cricketer" and "Wisden Cricketers Almanack."