They are the tournament’s underdogs, but you just love to see it.
Even as the ICC continued with its blinkered outlook towards the non-Test-playing nations, there were plenty of encouraging signs throughout 2015 that underlined the rising stock of Associate cricket.
The World Cup saw a string of exciting performances from the four Associate teams involved, with Ireland producing their best display at the global event courtesy of three wins – two of them over Test nations – and missing a quarter-final berth by a whisker.
There was considerable outrage against the ICC’s decision to reduce the number of teams in the 2019 edition to ten but it appears this will not change the decision.
The most significant edition of the Intercontinental Cup commenced, with eight teams vying for a ‘crack at Test cricket’ in 2018. Purported to be a ‘pathway’ to Test cricket, it would however not be wrong to say that the competition in reality is yet another instance of ICC doublespeak, as there is no concrete guarantee that the winner will earn Test status in the future.
The other major event on the Associate calendar was the World Twenty20 Qualifier hosted by Ireland and Scotland. There were twists and turns and surprises galore, before six teams sealed their passage to the first round of what is falsely claimed to be a ’16-team tournament’ – the 2016 ICC World Twenty20 in India.
Nevertheless, in spite of these obstacles, the year was enriched by several memorable moments produced by the ‘have-nots’ of the international cricket fraternity, and this has certainly left keen followers of Associate cricket asking for more in 2016.
Here are five such moments that gained the attention of the cricketing world.
5) Oman spring a shock at the World Twenty20 qualifiers
Unheralded Oman – placed in Division Five of the World Cricket League and well below the established Associate teams – lived a dream at the World Twenty20 qualifier and ultimately succeeded in making the cut to the opening round of the 2016 World T20 by finishing sixth. They also gained T20 international status.
Having gained entry on the back of their ACC Twenty20 Cup victory earlier in the year, Oman opened their campaign with a narrow loss to Kenya before signalling their intentions by beating Canada, thanks to Zeeshan Maqsood’s whirlwind 86*.
Then followed two massive upsets – as fancied Netherlands and Afghanistan both fell prey to the tenacity of the unknown expatriate outfit. The win over Afghanistan – by a wide margin of 40 runs – was especially stirring. They thus finished fourth in their group and were pitted against Namibia in a knockout playoff.
A disciplined bowling effort saw Oman restrict Namibia to 148/9. The batsmen replied in an unburdened fashion, an even though the score wobbled to 67/3, a five-wicket victory was sealed with a full over to spare, thanks in main to Zeeshan Siddiqui’s unbeaten 51. The fairytale result expectedly sparked delirious scenes in the Omani camp.
4) Barramundis create history on first-class debut
The spunky Papua New Guinea team – known as the Barramundis – had created history late in 2014 by becoming the first nation to win its first two ODI matches. Halfway through 2015, they added another feather to their cap by winning their first first-class match, that too after overcoming a tough chase.
Drawn against the Netherlands at Amstelveen in their first round Intercontinental Cup match, Papua New Guinea had prior experience of only two-day cricket. Pacer Loa Nou (5/49) helped bowl the hosts out for 209 in the first innings, but the Papua New Guinea batting quickly subsided to concede a lead of 81.
The Dutch gathered a further 223 runs in the second innings, recovering from 110/7, thereby setting the visitors a target of 305. Papua New Guinea reached 66/2 at the end of the second day, with the hard-hitting Lega Siaka providing vital impetus at the top with an attacking 49.
The score slipped to 82/4 early on the third day, but Assad Vala and Mahuru Dai rose to the ocassion. The duo shared in an excellent stand of 200 in 51.4 overs for the fourth wicket to guide their team’s march towards victory. While Dai fell for 91, Vala remained unconquered on a magnificent 124. Captain Jack Vare struck the winning boundary to seal a five-wicket triumph with a day to spare.
3) Afghanistan’s double success in Zimbabwe
On their 2014 visit to Zimbabwe, Afghanistan had admirably drawn the ODI series 2-2. In 2015, they went one step ahead and became the first Associate team to win a bilateral series against a Test team. This result further exposed the ICC’s fallacy of the shallow bifurcation between ‘full members’ and ‘non-full members’.
The Afghans started the five-match ODI series in ordinary fashion, getting walloped by eight wickets in the first game. They came back strongly to win the second ODI by 58 runs, before Zimbabwe pulled into the lead again thanks to a six-wicket win in the third.
Faced with a must-win situation in each of the final two games, Afghanistan upped their performance when it mattered. The fourth ODI was won by three wickets after the hosts were restricted to 184/8, while the crowning glory came through a convincing 73-run win in the final encounter.
Not only did they win the ODI series, but also swept the two-match Twenty20series that followed. In the second game, they chased down Zimbabwe’s substantial total of 190/5 thanks to a rollicking start by their often-fragile top order. As the year draws to a close, Afghanistan have broken into the top ten of the ODI rankings for the first time.
2) Ireland at the World Cup – giant-killers no more
Back in 2007, Ireland gained the reputation of being ‘giant-killers’ following shock wins over Pakistan and Bangladesh. In 2011, while one expected them to impress again, few would have envisaged their epic chase against England, not in the least at the halfway mark of their innings.
However in 2015, there were real expectations. As the torchbearers of Associate cricket, the onus was on Ireland to conjure up another noteworthy performance on the global stage. They certainly did not let down on that count, as they notched three wins and missed out on the quarter-finals only due to an unfavourable net run-rate.
The opening game against the West Indies at Nelson presented a great opportunity for the Irishmen to prove a point, and they grabbed it with both hands. Even though the bowlers allowed the Windies to get away from 87/5 to 304/7, the batsmen clinically hunted down the total to bring up a four-wicket win with 25 balls to spare. Paul Stirling (92), Ed Joyce (84) and Niall O’Brien (79*) all starred.
In their fourth game, they collected their second ‘full member’ scalp as they beat Zimbabwe by five runs in a heart-stopper at Hobart. Joyce (112) and Andy Balbirnie (97) steered their side to 331/7, and Zimbabwe’s unlikely march to victory was eventually halted by Alex Cusack (4/32). They did lose to South Africa, India and Pakistan, but the Irishmen clearly showed that their wins were no longer ‘upsets’.
1) Afghanistan’s maiden World Cup victory
Afghanistan’s astonishingly rapid rise from learning the game in refugee camps to World Cup qualification has been nothing short of a delightful fairyale. The fairytale reached its zenith at Dunedin’s University Oval, where Mohammed Nabi’s men met fellow Associate Scotland in their World Cup clash.
After Afghanistan elected to field, fast bowlers Shapoor Zadran (4/38) and Dawlat Zadran (3/29) combined to bowl Scotland out for 210. In reply, the Afghans were in control at 85/2 in the 19th over with Javed Ahmadi and Samiullah Shenwari in the middle, but the former’s dismissal for 51 triggered a manic collapse of five for 12 in five overs as the score slid to 97/7.
But Shenwari was still there and he added crucial runs with the tail. He was ninth out for a heroic 96 with 19 runs still needed off as many balls. The last pair of Hamid Hassan and Shapoor Zadran managed to hang in and completed the win with three balls left, leading to an outburst of raw emotion – not just on the field, but all across Afghanistan, where people took to the streets with euphoria.
It was the long-haired Shapoor who hit the wining boundary. As soon as he realised it, he took off his helmet and made a dash to a corner of the ground. He knelt down and looked skywards, with his hands spread out wide, as his teammates converged on him. It was arguably the defining image of the tournament.