Mark Chapman puts his helmet on

Mark Chapman: a young Hong Kong batting star who switched to New Zealand

© Getty Images


Who's missing at the World Cup qualifiers?

Some of the finest Associate players in the business, that's who. Here is why

Tim Wigmore  |  

They were two of the best talents to ever emerge from Hong Kong. And they embodied the ideal of how Associate cricket nations should develop. Both were born in the country, learned most of their cricket there, and made their international debuts aged 16. One became an international captain at 20 and led Hong Kong to their first global tournament, the 2014 World T20, where they toppled Bangladesh. The other became only the tenth cricketer in history to score a century on his one-day international debut, at the age of just 21.

Today, the two are 23 and 27, and ought to form the core of Hong Kong's batting. Neither is injured. And yet, when Hong Kong play their first World Cup qualifying match in Bulawayo on March 6, neither Jamie Atkinson nor Mark Chapman will be playing. Hong Kong will attempt to reach the World Cup - or, more realistically, retain their hard-won ODI status - without them.

Atkinson will be at home, following the scores on ESPNcricinfo in between his full-time job as a teacher for French International School. He would much rather be in Zimbabwe, continuing an international career that began in 2006, when he got time off as a schoolboy to play matches. Three years ago, Atkinson dropped a salad bowl on his big toe and severed a tendon in his foot. He was given a recovery time of six weeks, which would have meant he missed the World T20 qualifiers. After making it to Ireland on crutches, and with his foot still in a cast, Atkinson did two or three recovery sessions a day, and was back on the field 22 days after his operation, helping Hong Kong qualify. It showed his commitment to Hong Kong cricket. But playing didn't pay the bills.

"It is difficult for me that I can't play a hand in helping Hong Kong - particularly as I have grown up playing with most of the team," he explains. At the start of his international career, Atkinson lived at home with his parents, but he could only do so for so long. "I got to 25 and realised if I wanted to live in Hong Kong long-term, I needed to be making money to support myself financially for things such as rent."

Atkinson still uses his holiday time and days off to play international cricket, but he could not get a month off for the qualifiers. That leaves Hong Kong without their first-choice opener, wicketkeeper and sole player with county experience.

Chapman leaves behind an even greater hole. A left-hand batsman of nonchalant quality, he was signed by Auckland, where he attended boarding school from the age of 13 and qualified to play as a local player because his father is from New Zealand. In his fifth List A match for Auckland, he arrived at the crease at 35 for 4 and promptly slammed 157 off 111 balls.

"I am in the process of qualifying in New Zealand as a local player and I felt leaving during the summer season would jeopardise my qualification" Michael Rippon, Netherlands

When Hong Kong announced their squad for the World Cup qualifiers, it did not include Chapman, who had not played for them since 2016. A week later, he was selected in a New Zealand squad for the first time, to play England in the T20 tri-series. He hit the sixth ball of his second international career for six, shuffling across his crease and flicking the ball over square leg.

"It is a shame that we both can't be playing in such a big tournament for Hong Kong," Atkinson reflects. "I would have loved to be there playing. In my eyes, Chappy not playing isn't sad. He has managed to make his way to the top, an opportunity he is unlikely to get with Hong Kong the way the ICC currently views Associates. He has given himself the opportunity to make a great career in cricket in terms of playing lots of competitive cricket and the finances. Those are opportunities that Associate cricketers have very few of."

For the six Associate nations competing in this year's World Cup qualifiers, the matches are their most important for four years, going back to the last World Cup qualifiers. It is not mere World Cup qualification - which looks a forlorn hope for many, given the tournament's contraction to ten teams - at stake. It is ODI status for the next four years, to be awarded to Netherlands and the top three performing Associates in the qualifiers. It is continued inclusion in the World Cricket League Championship and the Intercontinental Cup, thereby providing some certainty of fixtures. It is their very future as professional cricketers; failure means their boards may no longer be able to maintain their contracts.

Most onerously, they are playing for cricket's future in their countries. Fail and it is not just their own contracts that will be imperilled. It is youth development programmes, fixtures for years to come, and the dreams of young cricketers hoping to make a career from cricket. In some respects, this is more pressure than a World Cup final or an Ashes Test.

But the grim reality of Associate cricket is that in the tournaments in which they are judged, and which determine their funding and future, they are seldom able to field their strongest possible teams. It is not just Atkinson and Chapman who will be ghosts at the feast.

Netherlands have to cope without Tom Cooper, Michael Rippon and Logan van Beek, three fine cricketers who are instead playing domestic cricket in Australia or New Zealand. Scotland will miss Preston Mommsen, who quit as captain aged 29 out of sheer despair with the lack of opportunities; as well as seam bowler Josh Davey, who will be busy with pre-season training for Somerset, concerned that international cricket for Scotland will damage his chances of turning out as a non-overseas player in county cricket. Namibia came within 20 runs of reaching the qualifiers; they might well have managed them had they been able to field Christi Viljoen, an allrounder who has played international cricket for eight years but was unavailable to play in World Cricket League Division Two in February because he was playing for Otago in New Zealand.

Scotland won't have the services of their fast bowler Josh Davey at the World Cup Qualifiers because of his county commitments

Scotland won't have the services of their fast bowler Josh Davey at the World Cup Qualifiers because of his county commitments © Getty Images

The individual tales of the absentees vary, and yet the issues remain the same. Most Associate players can only be offered short-term deals, often on so little money that they are not even full-time. Even Netherlands, the 13th best ODI team, can only afford five full-time player contracts.

While the paucity of matches between Associates and the lowest Full Members remains astounding, at least as big a problem is the lack of games between top Associate countries themselves - simply because their boards cannot afford to play more. Between the World Cup Qualifiers in 2014 and 2018, top Associate nations only played 14 games in the 50-over World Cricket League Championship - an average of 3.5 a year.

The lack of competitive cricket leads to the ennui of training without a clear target. Mommsen, who started playing for Scotland when he was rising at 5am and catching the bus to work in complete darkness to give him enough time to train in the evenings, retired after enjoying the most prolific summer of his international career. During his considerable downtime, he did an internship with a property development company, which mushroomed into a job offer. And what was there to turn it down for?

"I just couldn't justify it by the number of days cricket I was playing a year," Mommsen explains. After the World Cup Qualifiers, Scotland currently only have three days of international cricket scheduled for 2018. "It is nothing. It just sounds ridiculous… We're working completely out of the box to make training as difficult as possible, but you can't replicate that pressure of when you're playing."

In between working as a property buyer, Mommsen still tries to make himself available to play for Scotland. He played four 50-over games last summer. He admits to feeling some guilt that a team he captained to victory in the last World Cup Qualifiers, when he was the side's top run scorer, will have to try and qualify this time without him.

"It's quite a strange feeling," he says. "I've made this decision to step away from it… To not be a part of it and trying to watch from my desktop is gonna be tough." He won't be able to watch many, if any, of Scotland's games, though. Only ten of the 34 matches in the tournament will be broadcast live.

The eligibility conundrum

Last October the ICC announced major revisions to the eligibility rules for international cricketers. A minimum three-year period was stipulated between a player representing one country and another; previously no gap at all was needed between playing for an Associate country and a Full Member a player also qualified for.

After appeals from Associate countries, who feared the loss of players to domestic leagues in Full-Member nations, the ICC suspended the change.

The change is now expected to be introduced in April, but it will only impact future players. As before, those who already play for an Associate and also become eligible for a Full Member - like Netherlands' Michael Rippon - can in theory play for the Associate nation on a Monday and the Full Member on a Tuesday, but they can't switch back for another three years.

Current Associate players will still be able to - simultaneously - play domestic cricket in a Full Member nation as a local player, and international cricket for their Associate team. Whether this path will be open to future Associate players is unclear, and has prompted fears that they will give up playing international cricket for their Associate country.

There is one way that leading Associate cricketers can escape the lack of fixtures and financial security: by finding domestic teams abroad to employ them professionally.

It has long been alleged that clubs put pressure on players not to miss matches by going away to play international cricket for their countries. The reality, perhaps, is more subtle but just as invidious. Players know that professional sports careers are short and volatile. They know that, should they miss matches, someone else could come in and take their place, jeopardising their entire future in the game.

"I guess it was my decision not to go to the Qualifiers but I had to take a lot of factors into account," explains Rippon, a South Africa-born left-arm wristspinner for Netherlands, who plays domestic cricket for Otago. "I am in the process of qualifying in New Zealand as a local player and I felt leaving during the summer season would jeopardise my qualification. I love playing for the Netherlands and hopefully I will get another opportunity in the near future." [See sidebar]

Even if Associate players are established for domestic teams abroad, they know that to leave the team with which they spend the vast majority of their careers could be seen as letting it down. Should they leave for international duty, their domestic teams are entitled to pay them less - and the sport's economics are such that domestic sides in Test countries can pay their players far more than Associates normally can for international cricket. Consider that, in 2017, Netherlands' budget was around US$1.5 million; for South Australia, the state that employs Australia-born Tom Cooper - who, because of his Dutch mother, played for Netherlands - it was A$43 million (approx US$33 million).

The upshot is that the ICC's mandatory release clause for Associate players - to play in ICC events, including the World Cup Qualifiers, as well as international matches against Full Members - is useless. It is effectively unenforceable: should Associate teams insist on their players being available, the players are likely to be forced to retire from the international game.

What incentives do Associate players have to play international cricket when their domestic contracts in Full Member nations offer far more, in terms of money and game time?

What incentives do Associate players have to play international cricket when their domestic contracts in Full Member nations offer far more, in terms of money and game time? © Getty Images

"Would I like to have Logan, Tommy and Michael with us? Of course," says Ryan Campbell, Netherlands head coach. "The mandatory release is good in theory but the team that they are playing for very often uses the whole selection or contract negotiations as a threat. The facts are: Associate countries don't have a first-class system, so it's very hard to give players contracts to let them both earn a living and ply their trade in a good competition. It's disappointing, of course, but I'm sick of beating my head against the wall over it."

The solution, Campbell says, is simple. "We need enough money to contract our players full-time. Then we can release them to counties or provincial teams but we are in charge." Until then, "the system is clear - if you want to be a professional cricketer, you have to play in a professional league and these only exist in Full Member countries."

This means that Associates will continue to allow their players to pick and choose, making full-strength squads rare. To mitigate these concerns, the ICC plans to change the eligibility criteria for future international players, so that there will be a three-year cooling-off period between playing for one country and another. The intention is to end the situation where, as now, Associate cricketers can play for an Associate country one day and a Full-Member nation they qualify for the following day.

And yet this could actually leave Associates even weaker. Davey, who took 15 wickets at the 2015 World Cup, declined to be included in Scotland's squad for the Qualifiers, fearing that playing could damage his status as a local player for Somerset, which, like other counties, receives extra payments for England-qualified players.

Tinkering a little with the rules will not address the underlying problem for Associate nations. Until cricket's structural inequalities remain, Associates know that some of their best players will be lost to them when they need them most.

"I do get angry," Mommsen says about the inequities that have driven him and others to be unavailable for the qualifiers. "It's a big shame when you look across the board at the number of big players who will be missing - Associates can't afford to miss these sorts of players. It's very difficult for the Associates to make a case for these guys to play because there's no real guarantee of what cricket they can get after."

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts