Argentina’s fantastic showing at the recent Rugby World Cup has been well-documented. “Los Pumas” not only reached the semi-final after a comprehensive victory over Ireland, they got closer to eventual champions New Zealand than all but one team, threatened Australia in the semi-final and made light work of smaller teams alongside whom they would have been ranked not too long ago.
However, this performance does not come as a surprise, nor is it a unique one — in 2007, Argentina made the semi-finals and even won the so-called “Bronze Final” which decides the third placed team. The Pumas’ 2015 Rugby World Cup was more like a rise back from the wilderness than a rise from nothing.
At the beginning of this decade and the end of the last, Argentina were struggling. Regularly losing Tests and not showing any signs of improvement, having got through the 2011 World Cup pool stages by the skin of their teeth, they were unceremoniously dumped out in the quarter-final by the All Blacks.
The Unión Argentina de Rugby (UAR) cited a lack of regular quality opposition as the reason for their lack of success. After much pleading with World Rugby, the sport’s governing body, in 2012 the old Tri Nations was merged into the Rugby Championship. This meant that Argentina would play New Zealand, South Africa and Australia on a regular basis. Playing three of Rugby’s heavyweights every year would help the South Americans learn to survive against the best and consistently improve.
At first, things did not look promising. For the first two years, Argentina were regularly thrashed, causing many to think that having them in the competition was a waste of time. However, in 2014 they beat Australia on home soil and since then Argentine Rugby has never looked back.
The simple reason for Argentina’s drastic turnaround is because they’ve been able to play against better opposition for a large amount of time. At first, they got thrashed, but after hours and hours of practice both in matches and on the training ground, they got better and are now starting to be able to match the best teams in both Hemispheres. It seems obvious now: the more teams play the more they will improve. Argentina have always had good players who have played in various top leagues — another reason for their success — but playing competitive matches has made them play as a team.
Other smaller nations are getting more of an opportunity, too. The Autumn Internationals mean that teams like Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Japan and even those in Europe such as Ukraine, Romania, Russia and Georgia are getting opportunities to play against better teams and improve; hence Japan’s own moment of glory after beating South Africa in the World Cup.
Rugby has grown from a sport only taken seriously by Great Britain and Ireland, France and the Tri Nations into what is becoming a global brand taken seriously in parts of all continents. It is turning into the second sport of football-dominated countries, and could soon have 20 strong international teams instead of eight liked it used to. Whilst the growth of Rugby is admirable, it is a shame to see it becoming a second sport to football in many countries instead of cricket.
What cricket can learn from Argentine rugby
In recent years, cricket has shown signs of becoming a global phenomenon in its own right. Teams like Ireland and the Netherlands have produced regular shocks at World Cups, Afghan cricket is going nowhere but up, the UAE are improving and even the Chinese set a target of becoming a Test nation by 2020 — although that is now highly unlikely, the women’s team have taken the baton for Chinese cricket and are looking more and more like a force to be reckoned with.
Whilst many of the “associate” nations are improving, they are not being given enough of an opportunity to do so, and it looks like they will soon hit a ceiling if things are not changed. Ireland have a great chance of becoming a Test nation in 2019. However, a crucial change in the original ICC reforms, made to gain the votes of Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, means that the “bigger” (not better) nations will be given too much protection and the “smaller” nations will not be given enough help both financially and competitively.
The new two-tier system which allows associate nations to compete with full members is a fantastic move in the globalisation of cricket, but the fact that teams like Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, both of whom are showing no signs of improving and are starting to fall behind nations like Ireland and Afghanistan, cannot be relegated means that not only will they be given an unfair amount of help financially, but that they will not need to sort out their respective teams to keep their place at cricket’s top table.
That system aside, what is more disappointing is that teams have to have a certain status to be deemed fit by the ICC to play against quality opposition. If the Test teams are willing to play the associate nations, why should the governing body prevent this from happening? Why can’t Afghanistan, Ireland, the UAE, the Netherlands and even teams like Kenya, Namibia and China be given the chance to improve like Argentina did in Rugby?
The recent ODI and T20 series between Afghanistan and Zimbabwe showed that the Asian country are ready to compete with cricket’s elite. Under the leadership of Inzamam-ul-Haq, they could become quite a force in world cricket. Therefore, a cricket equivalent of the Rugby Championship needs to come into play to help them improve by playing the best teams and not just Zimbabwe.
As well as the long-running Asia Cup, which badly needs revolutionising as it is currently Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan thrashing Bangladesh and all the other Asian nations, the Asian Test championship should be brought back and allow Afghanistan and possibly the UAE to compete. In short, the two smaller Asian teams should be able to play Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan as often as both teams want in all three forms of the game so that they can improve.
At first, Afghanistan would regularly lose comfortably, just like Argentina did in 2012 and 2013. However, after a while they’d be able to salvage a few draws in Test matches by batting sensibly and even play in some tight limited overs encounters, possibly winning a few games. After a few years of this, there’s a great chance that they’d be able to compete and regularly take wins off their Asian counterparts, leading to strong showings in World Cups.
In Europe, why not introduce a chance for Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands and any other European countries who want to take cricket seriously to compete against both each other and England on a regular basis? Why not get New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and even the West Indies involved? Provided there is a clear attempt to help cricket’s younger nations improve, there is no reason why someone outside the mainstream could be seen in the later rounds of World Cups.
Finally, the associate nations should be used as warm-ups for Test tours. Teams coming to England should play one-off Tests, ODIs and Twenty20s and later proper series against Ireland in particular and possibly Scotland and the Netherlands; teams touring the subcontinent should play against Afghanistan and the UAE. Over time, these warm-up matches would become closer and closer, to the extent that these teams would be able to play full series and win those too.
At the moment, cricket is not growing enough as a global brand. The most important thing for the future of cricket is making sure that more and more nations take the sport seriously and later start to compete with the best. If the ICC take inspiration from Argentine Rugby, there is no reason why the cricketing world couldn’t see the former associate nations competing with and eventually beating the top Test nations in the near future.