Afghanistan's rise to official ODI status, and their qualification for the recent ICC World Twenty20 in the Caribbean, is the crowning success of the Asian Cricket Council's development programs. But so far the council has been unable to find them a place in the Asia Cup, which could hinder the country's future development.
The problems start with scheduling. The Asia Cup has had something of a rocky existence, being played at irregular intervals and tacked on as an afterthought to the already jam-packed schedules of the big four of Asian cricket. "It is an uphill task, it is difficult to find a time when all boards are completely free," Syed Ashraful Huq, the ACC's chief executive, told Cricinfo.
The current competition needed Bangladesh to split their tour of England into Test and limited-overs legs, and Pakistan to push back their series against Australia by ten days. Including Afghanistan would have bloated the tournament's duration, a no-no given the small window available to the Test countries.
The other problem is money. The tournament isn't very appealing to the four boards since they only get a participating fee, which Huq called a 'small amount' (he declined to reveal the actual numbers).
Afghanistan don't pull in the crowds either, making them unattractive to broadcasters. "It's a matter of monetising those Afghan fans," the ACC's media manager, Shahriar Khan, said. "At the end of the day Bangladesh may lose but they have got 80 million people who are going to tune in to watch. Afghanistan may win but they haven't got that many who will tune in, they are an unknown territory for the broadcasters."
The Asia Cup's organisers have managed to secure its future as a biennial competition until 2014 through a five-year broadcast deal with Nimbus Sport. "By doing that, we have a commitment from the four boards that they will play," Huq said. But Afghanistan's participation in the next two tournaments is still unlikely as of now, and vital opportunities to play against the big boys could be lost. The issue takes on an added significance since Afghanistan will need to re-earn their ODI status after 2014. If they are unsuccessful, they won't be eligible for any subsequent Asia Cups.
Afghanistan joined the ACC back in 2001; have been participating in the organisation's top tournament for associate countries, the ACC Trophy Elite since 2004, and are the current holders of the title. "We are the main driving force over there," Huq said. "We conduct all their camps, send them coaches, they have been participating in our age-group tournaments, in our ACC Trophy, that is how they graduated."
Adding to the body's satisfaction over Afghanistan's progress is the fact that the team is not overrun by expats from Test playing nations, as has been the case in some of the smaller Asian countries like the UAE.
"The thing is they are Afghan, other sides have expats, nothing wrong with that, it's just at the development body level in Asia, the expats who have played are Indians, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans and they have dominated," Shahriar said. "If you expand that beyond them into the native community via schools, and education boards, not just the minority but everyone could play."
Aside from Afghanistan, there is heartening news from countries that aren't usually associated with cricket, like Bhutan, who are regular finalists in the age-group tournaments conducted by the ACC. "Bhutan is very interesting because they are about 3000 active cricketers which actually represents a huge percentage of the about 70,000 school-going children in the country," Khan said.
And then there's China, at the heart of cricket's dream to expand in Asia, with its 1.3 billion people sending sports administrators' pulses racing. China has seen growth in the number of clubs (78 according to the ACC website, compared to none two years ago) and in the number of grounds.
Former Pakistan fast bowler Rashid Khan has been working with Chinese cricketers for more than three-and-a-half years now, and Pakistan's cricket ambassador to China, former captain Javed Miandad, invited them over for coaching camps and matches in Lahore and Karachi earlier this year.
Huq remains hugely positive of China's potential. "They didn't even know what a bat looked like four years ago, now you see the way they play, give them another five years they will compete at a very high level." There's still a long way to go, though, as performances in recent tournaments have been poor and China languish near the bottom of the ACC rankings, below the likes of Bahrain.
Even if they, and other promising countries like Nepal and Hong Kong, follow the strides made by Afghanistan, they will need more willpower from the ACC, an organisation that exists to promote and develop Asian cricket, to provide them top-flight cricket opportunities.
No comments from my side. You people may not like it.