The ICC has come under attack in recent days (mainly from Associate nation players and administrators) for its decision to restrict the 2015 ODI World Cup to just 10 nations—which, effectively, leaves little to no room for Associate nations to participate.
The argument of the complainants is partly sensible and partly not. They are correct in their assertion that the only way Associate nations can improve their standards is by playing against more competitive teams more often.
However, the logical conclusion of this is not that they should play in the World Cup.
The World Cup is a showcase event for the sport of cricket. It needs to present cricket of the highest quality and competitiveness, where well-matched teams battle it out intensely over the course of a game. A World Cup where close to half the matches elicit little to no interest from the viewing public is one which fails desperately to both meet its potential and fulfill its responsibility.
Take the current World Cup, for example: The first 30-odd days is spent meandering across the subcontinent, awaiting a result—the selection of quarterfinalists—that has very little uncertainty around it.
Sure, there are one or two interesting questions: Can Bangladesh sneak past the West Indies or England? Any chance Zimbabwe can spring a surprise?
But otherwise, the quarterfinalists are set.
Then suddenly, we have the best eight teams involved in a rapid knockout phase, in which an ultimate winner is decided in just 10 days!
Not only is this lop-sided scheduling, but it also makes it less likely that the best performing team overall actually ends-up lifting the cup. (But more on this in another article.)
Yes, participating in the World Cup provides Associate nations with some "exposure." But what value is "exposure" that is largely clouded in humiliatingly one-sided defeat?
Despite the odd upset, even the most die-hard cricket fan would be hard-pressed to remember which Associate nations participated in each of the past three World Cups.
I'm not saying that Associate nations should not play in the World Cup. The benefits of the exposure and experience are plenty. Not only does it increase the profile of the sport in their home countries, but it can also help improve the standards of Associate players.
However, as Ricky Ponting says, "I'm not sure how much a lot of the teams actually learn when they're getting hammered."
What the ICC needs to do is put in place a structure that ensures Associate nations are more competitive when they do come to the World Cup.
For this, the top teams need to play the best Associate nations more regularly. Perhaps the ICC should make a certain number of such games mandatory each year. A tour of England could begin with warm-up games against Holland and Ireland and Scotland. A tour of South Africa could end with a couple of matches against Kenya and Zimbabwe. And so on.
By providing the best Associate nations constant and regular competition against the top teams the ICC can, over time, bring more nations to the highest level.
This is a far better approach than exposing Associate nations to a handful of games every four years and, that too, in a tournament where the top nations are at the very peak of their motivation.
And most importantly, by pursuing such a strategy, more and more Associate nations will be playing cricket at a standard that allows them to play in expanded World Cups in future.
Meanwhile, if you are going to include Associate nations at a time when they're likely to be uncompetitive (as in the current edition) then matches need to be more sensibly scheduled. Agreed, the opener between India and Bangladesh was electric. But, how smart is it to follow this with these six matches in the subsequent five days: NZ vs. Kenya, Canada vs. SL, Australia vs. Zimbabwe, Netherlands vs. England, and Pakistan vs. Kenya? Such scheduling is both momentum-destroying and soul-sapping.
If uncompetitive teams are to be included then multiple matches need to be scheduled on certain days, and marquee match-ups (i.e. games involving the top 10) need to happen almost daily. This will not only ensure a more speedy tournament, but also retain the public's interest and general excitement levels.