New Delhi: The need to further the globalization of cricket and thereby raise its competitive standard is not new. It's a realistic goal towards which the International Cricket Council's approach has been both constructive and productive. Cricket has moved to far-flung, isolated corners - the most welcome development of late. Countries like China are jumping into the fray and the game getting a ticket to far-reaching tournaments like the Asian Games are some of the most satisfying achievements in the game's recent history.
However, while the game's expansion and reach is gratifying, that last leap for the new recruits - from Associate to Full ICC Member - is still open to incisive debates and needs addressing. The game can't afford a repeat of the ICC's mistakes of 1992 and 2000, when they awarded Test status to the then and now novice Zimbabwe and Bangladesh respectively.
Bangladesh, who played their first one-day international (ODI) back in 1986, have completed 25 years in international cricket, including 11 years of Test cricket, while still playing like an Associate rather than a Full Member. Their latest in a long list of meek surrenders in that quarter century came in an ODI on Thursday, when Pakistan wrapped them up for 91 in 30.3 overs.
Zimbabwe - the elder brother of Bangladesh in terms of experience - too have remained party poopers after spending close to 30 years in international cricket.
While at their peak they were a competitive side, boasting world-class players like the Flower brothers, Alastair Campbell, Heath Streak and, briefly, Murray Goodwin and Neil Johnson, they never managed to form an XI that could overcome the fear of victory on the rare occasions they came close to it.
Of course, Zimbabwe were hurt by the major upheaval they went through during 2002 - Andy Flower and Henry Olonga's "black armband protest", their subsequent retirements and the majority of the remaining senior players quitting - which led to the withdrawal of Test status that, apart from a brief resumption in 2005, remained in place until early 2011.
However, with inconsistency and immaturity remaining something of a constant with Zimbabwe, like Bangladesh, they too have remained easy fodder for the senior teams for nearly three decades. Even India, Sri Lanka and New Zealand - who too struggled for the initial phase of their international incumbency - didn't need that long to become a serious threat.
Performances, especially Bangladesh's, seriously undermine the efforts of the ICC, such as the High Performance Program (HPP) that is in place to help the Associate Members prepare for the ICC World Cup and burst into the big league. Bangladesh's wins or even competitive games - spread across acres of infertile periods - are a prime example.
Let's look at the numbers: 30 of Bangladesh's 70 ODI wins have come against Zimbabwe and only 18 against other Test nations. That's in a period stretching from 1986 to 2011. It isn't much better for Zimbabwe: of the 107 ODIs they have won, 26 were against Bangladesh and only 47 against other Test nations, spreading across 28 years since they played their first ODI in 1983.
Such a record in limited-overs cricket doesn't merit them a place in elite tournaments like the World Cup and Champions Trophy. Of late, Ireland have displayed more tooth than Bangladesh and Zimbabwe had ever managed in their extended childhood.
Coming back to the process of graduating nations to Full Member status, the ICC needs to look into its charter and make sweeping changes to prevent any further howlers. Two such moves could be:
1. Before granting ODI status to Associate Members, the ICC should put them through a qualification phase where they play the A teams of other Full Members for at least one year. Otherwise, it's difficult to gauge the performance of such teams in an Associate vs Associate match as the standards are not much different. On the other hand, A teams present a far better challenge which could be used as a yardstick. This will not only improve their competitive skills but will also spare ICC events from mismatched affairs.
2. As far as Full Member or Test status is concerned, it should not be given on a permanent basis for any new incumbent. Like any other employment procedure, it should have a probation period of three years, after which a decision can be taken purely on the basis of performance and results. It won't be a bad idea either if the ICC sets targets to be achieved in that probation period to keep such teams on their toes.
Unless such across-the-board changes are incorporated, the outcome may remain the same as those witnessed with Zimbabwe and Bangladesh's promotion. Bangladesh have won only three of the 71 Tests they have played, one against Zimbabwe and two against a second-string West Indies - the two most disappointing teams of the last decade. Similarly, Zimbabwe have won only nine of the 86 Tests they featured in - five against Bangladesh, two against India and two against Pakistan.
It's always good to hear and read about romantic tales but the problem is that more often than not it will have a tragic end. That's what has happened with Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, and that's where the challenge lies for the ICC.