As cricket's flagship global tournament stumbles and trundles through its league stage in England, one thing is becoming nakedly obvious. There is a gaping quality gap between the top 5 teams in the tournament compared to the rest. So much so, that the gap between the top 3 to 5 associates, and the bottom 5 "test" teams in the WC is much smaller. This fact was re-inforced by the manner in which the West Indies managed to squeak through the qualifiers and make its way into the World Cup - an eventuality that only occurred due to the dual divine intervention of weather and a poor umpiring decision.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that either of Scotland, Ireland, Zimbabwe would be extremely competitive against the likes of Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, or even Pakistan. The latter, on their "bad days" of which there seem to be increasingly many. However, this little write-up isn't about the injustice meted out to the teams that missed out on the WC - as legitimate as that grievance is. My concern is with the yawning quality gap between the handful of teams at the top vs the other 'test' member nations in cricket. Given the structural and financial constructs of global cricket, odds are that such a gap not only exists, but threatens to solidify into permanence and potentially widen.
Such an outcome may provide some gleeful entertainment for fans in the short-term, as historic rivalries tamely meander towards a cycle of repeated beat-downs, it is clear that this is an existential threat to the sport as it exists today. The reality of cricket is that for national teams to be competitive at the highest levels, they need to stand on a foundation of a deep and healthy domestic first class cricket structure. It is not a co-incidence that the top 3 teams likely to make the semi-finals are the socalled "big 3" - happen to be the ones with the best and sustainable domestic cricket structures. As competitive as the kiwis have been in this WC - their domestic system is far from stable, and South Africa are on the cusp of heading the same way. The domestic cricket challenges and problems in West Indies and Sri Lanka are well-known and have been moaned about for donkeys' years. And let's not even get started on the shambles that is the Pakistani set-up. Which is about to undergo its umpteenth "reform" by a self-styled savior with good intentions. Its a hapless repetition of the same approach, albeit with a man at the top whose intentions are beyond reproach. But in spite of that, it is eminently foolish to expect different results when you are doing the same thing over and over. However well-meaning the current leaders of Pakistan Cricket are, they are more or less doomed to essentially the same results, unless Pakistan's national fortunes beyond cricket manage to improve - an outcome even more unlikely than me winning the lottery. And I don't even buy lottery tickets.
I am not choosing to dwell on Pakistan's misfortunes only to kick a "rival" when they are down. Pakistan is a good example of a team with a large sustainable market behind them, and one that is relatively well-funded. It is simplistic, and inaccurate, to point the finger at the ICC or the "Pig 3" and attribute the dysfunctional domestic systems to a lack of resources. Pakistan has hundreds of millions of passionate fans, a legacy of supportive sponsors. Sri Lanka has a steady income stream from a steady diet of LOI games hosted against India. i.e. Its not just the money.
Extrapolate the current situation a few years out, and the gap between the 'haves' and 'have-nots' may end up in a death-spiral. Like anything else, if you are not growing, then by definition, you are shrinking. Even cricket's golden goose - the masses of Indian fans, may start getting weary if the team runs out of quality opponents to root against. Accepting the status quo, is essentially accepting an outcome where Franchise T20 inevitably becomes the primary format of the sport, with national cricket relegated to occasional tournaments, global or otherwise.
So "TL;DR", my point in this write-up, is to ask this question - how can the ICC assist its member boards in stabilizing and improving their domestic first class cricket systems? Till date, the ICC has functioned as a loose federation of member boards, and its actual executive powers are limited to administrating global tournaments and rules. I think the time has come for the ICC to recognize this enormous threat to cricket's sustainable future and work on potential solutions. That the ICC is a toothless tiger, and powerless to enforce its will onto the first class cricket structures of its member boards, is a given. But it is well within their abilities, even financially, to come up with a detailed proposal outlining best practices and minimum standards that can demonstrate the pathway to a healthy domestic cricket setup.
Given limitations of weather, facilities, resources, what should be the breakdown of the number of games by format be? To what degree should 4-day cricket be prioritized? Should young players be shielded from T20 cricket so that they develop their foundational cricket skills until a later date? What is the bests way to create feeder systems at lower levels - lower divisions club cricket, university and school cricket - that can bring and keep the game in touch with its grass roots, while creating the player supply for a healthy and competitive First-Class setup? These are questions that need to be answered by all countries. Not just the struggling ones. The least that the ICC can do, is provide a basic primer that can serve as an ideal to aim at, if not attain and surpass. Such a proposal would be helpful, not only to the likes of SL, WI, Afg, but also to the top tier of associate cricket nations - Scotland, Ireland, Nepal, USA etc.
As of now, each member nation is left to its own devices and plans, to devise and structure their first-class cricket. And of course, there is no way for the ICC to come up with a "one size fits all" plan, given the diversity of variables faced by the different countries - from USA to Nepal. But, there are enough common problems out there, faced by almost all cricket teams, test and associates, that a properly designed 'template' for First-class Cricket could make a genuine difference. At a minimum, it would empower the well-wishers of the sport to hold their national boards to some degree of accountability.
Think about a franchise business model - a 7-11 convenience store, or a fast food restaurant. Each individual location is often independently owned and operated, but they get major guidance in how to structure and operate their business. Obviously those franchise models benefit from stringent ownership rules that allow the central authority to mandate compliance, but absent such explicit authority, the ICC is well within its rights and scope, to show the way.
Ultimately, the fate and competitiveness of teams rest with the competency of their national cricket boards. Maybe we will see some creative solutions emerge in the future, potentially even along the lines suggested here on this forum.