Netherlands have played 122 One-Day Internationals, of which 77 have been against the 12 Test-playing nations. So far so good. But 30 of them have come against Afghanistan (10), Ireland (13) – who both only gained Test status in 2018, before which they were part of the ICC’s Associate member landscape – and Zimbabwe (7). Of the big boys, only Pakistan, South Africa and New Zealand have played a bilateral series in or against Netherlands; the others have only met them in World Cup competitions, for which the Dutch have always had to take the qualification route.
Netherlands first qualified for the 50-over World Cup in 1996, jointly staged by India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. They then played in every World Cup between 2003 and 2011, but coming into the 2023 edition, they had only two victories in 20 matches – against Namibia in 2003 and Scotland four years later. They have since doubled their tally of wins following their conquests of South Africa in Dharamsala and Bangladesh in Kolkata. An unlikely win against India on Sunday in Bengaluru will help them avoid the wooden spoon in the 10-team tournament, a massive shot in the arm for a nation with only a handful of professional cricketers.
Even in the past, but especially in this edition, Netherlands have showcased great skill and resilience, though lack of big-match experience and the inability to sustain performances for seven hours match after match have proved major stumbling blocks to their aspirations of pulling off coups with any regularity. That being said, no one will dispute the fact that they have punched above their weight, relying on the depth of their middle-order batting and the variety in their bowling group to trouble many a side.
It’s true of any endeavour that the more one does it, the better they get at it. For Netherlands, and their fellow Associates, to consistently play on an equal footing against the big guns, they need to play them more often. But because the calendars are so packed, the top sides are unable to devote time to the Associates, who are thus forced to either keep playing amongst themselves or against the ‘lesser’ Test nations, who find themselves in a similar boat because they aren’t exactly the most attractive draws either from a spectator or a television viewership point of view.
That’s the harsh reality of the world we live in, where financial considerations often override practicality. It’s no secret that, with India not playing Pakistan bilaterally for the last decade, the biggest draws are India versus Australia and India versus England. For obvious reasons, India are the most coveted side, everyone aware that a home series against them is a guarantee for an economic windfall.
Against this backdrop, how do teams like Netherlands and Scotland and Nepal – who played in the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka in August-September – raise their level of play? One of the possibilities is India, or Pakistan or England, Australia or South Africa or New Zealand, pitting their ‘A’ sides against them. The ‘A’ sides of these nations are strong and vibrant, players pushing for a place in the national squad. Playing against them may not be the equal of playing a full international outfit, but the gains to be accrued are immense.
It’s something Rahul Dravid, the Indian head coach, too believes isn’t a bad idea. “It’s heartening to see that the next T20 World Cup will have 20 teams participating in it. Cricket is in the Olympics as well in 2028,” he pointed out. “These are really good signs that show that we’re trying to embrace more teams. But it’s complex. There are only 365 days in the year, there’s so much of cricket being played. I know how tough our schedules are and it’s very hard for the more established teams to be able to fit in time to (even) play each other. But maybe the route is to go down the ‘A’ team route.”
While only 12 teams play Test cricket, and not all of them too well, nearly 90 nations have T20 international status. For many of the ‘smaller’ sides, T20 is the pathway to accepting and embracing a sport alien to them for so long, but teams like Netherlands and Scotland and UAE, who have had a taste of World Cup action, need greater assistance and a firmer leg-up. It may not be incumbent upon the top nations to prop them up, but if cricket truly wants to be recognised as a global sport, it’s a tack they must adopt for the greater good.