The minnows: Soon the Martians will put out a team

New markets beckon for global game

Thirty-two years ago, a team called East Africa bowled up to the cricket World Cup and were clobbered. It was difficult to be sure who was the more bemused: the players who went down by 181 runs, 10 wickets and 196 runs, or the spectators who wondered about this side's origins and what in the name of W G Grace they were doing there.

The 2007 World Cup does not have that peculiar, ad hoc combination of four countries ­ Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Kenya ­ who competed as one for no reason save to bring the competitors to a more workable eight. Don Pringle, father of Derek, was past his best at 43 but decided to train for the competition by replacing beer with vodka and tonic.

This tournament contains five separate minor nations who have trained as an athlete for the Olympics, without, presumably, the drugs. But the question still remained: what are they doing here? They're not asking it any more. Ireland, one of the quintet, delivered Pakistan a mighty blow yesterday and struck one for small cricket nations everywhere.

Their victory, fittingly brought up with a six by their inspirational captain, Trent Johnston, was perhaps the greatest upset of all World Cups. That Johnston from Wollongong, New South Wales, is about as Irish as a koala bear is of no matter.

Bangladesh were in similar giantkilling territory, albeit as a supposedly full-fledged member of the cricketing elite, a Test playing nation. Their win against India, one of the tournament favourites, was also resounding. Maybe St Patrick's Day 2007 will be seen as a turning point.

For Pakistan it was a dreadful result. Elimination at the first stage was in nobody's reckoning. But their preparation for this tournament was beset by misconceived selection and ill-advised posturing, embodied by their decision initially to select two men, Mohammad Asif and Shoaib Akhtar, who had been found guilty of doping offences. They were withdrawn, it was said, because of injury but the suspicion will remain that nandrolone, the illicit taking of which they were at first suspended for, was still in their system.

Disarray is hardly a unique state for Pakistan but this is going some even by their standards. The future is now bleak both for their veteran captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, and coach Bob Woolmer. It is to be hoped that Woolmer has not kept too many of his dearest possessions in Lahore which need collecting on his way home to South Afica. He will have to endure almighty flak.

The other day Woolmer, a man of perpetually sunny disposition, said Pakistan were up for this competition. What an unfortunate misreading of his charges that proved to be.

The World Cup has now been opened up in an unimaginable fashion. In a way it is a triumph for the International Cricket Council. In 1975, cricket had no real pretensions to being a global game despite the World Cup.

In 2007, commercial concerns are imperative and the ICC have made it their business to spread the game far and wide. Their missionary zeal is such that it would not be entirely surprising if Mars was admitted to associate membership soon with a view to playing one-day internationals by the end of the decade.

The trouble has been the standard of cricket. There is no question that levels in the leading minor countries have risen, at least among the better players. The World Cup squad members may have jobs away from cricket but they have seen precious little of their workplaces for a year.

More often than not they will be beaten. But nobody should take them lightly again. The ICC have a system of development strategies in place in the minor nations. They can be faulted for many things but their recognition that they have a duty to ensure the game grows is laudable.

But in truth, the worst nightmare for organisers of this World Cup was that any of the minnows ­ and they meant any country outside the top eight ­ might make it through to the second stage. The fear is that they cannot hope to sustain a competitive edge. They would be outstaying their welcome. But the Irish are welcome anywhere.

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