Mark Stafford is a man who has seen plenty of Associate cricket up close. He has completed a staggering 30 years as President of Vanuatu Cricket Association (VCA), after being appointed in 1991.
He is also the VCA Director of Finance and sits on the ICC Chief Executive Committee (CEC), as one of the three Associate member representatives.
In a compelling interview on the Emerging Cricket Podcast, Stafford spoke about his tenure as VCA President, the rise of Vanuatu cricket as well as his personal recommendations to the ICC for more Associate-friendly policies.
Over the last three decades, Stafford has overseen significant cricket development in this little Pacific archipelago, situated 1,967 kilometres north-east of Brisbane. Having joined the ICC as an Affiliate member in 1995, Vanuatu attained Associate status in 2009. Currently, they have around 30,000 participants playing the sport and compete as one of the 12 nations in the ICC Challenge League (the third tier of men’s 50-Over cricket).
Last year, Vanuatu hit the international headlines by becoming the first country in the world to resume sporting activities after the COVID-19 pandemic began. The hastily arranged cricket fixtures were a resounding success, far surpassing VCA’s wildest imaginations. Almost 600,000 viewers tuned in to watch the women’s T20 finals and men’s T10 exhibition matches on YouTube. Not bad for a nation, whose population amounts to only half that figure!
At the heart of Vanuatu’s success, lies its community-based approach. The board has used cricket as a tool to promote health and fitness related initiatives. The widely acclaimed ‘mamas‘ project has been particularly effective. It has raised awareness about domestic violence issues that plague 60% of women in the country, whilst also increasing female cricket participation.
The need for closer co-operation between Pacific cricketing nations
Despite its accomplishments, cricket in Vanuatu has to contend with the islands’ small population and economy. Financially, the country is at a handicap, especially in relation to more populated ICC East Asia Pacific (EAP) members such as Indonesia, Japan, Philippines and Papua New Guinea who have much higher scope for growth. And that’s without mentioning the array of privileges that the richer full members of Australia and New Zealand enjoy in the region.
Stafford would like to see all EAP members working together as equal partners to achieve sustainable growth. He singles out Cricket Australia (CA) and New Zealand Cricket (NZC), whom he believes must do more to grow the game amongst their smaller Pacific neighbours.
‘Personally, I would like to see CA come forward and say that we are going to have a EAP U-15 Championship for boys and girls in Cairns, Townsville or Darwin. It will be a huge catalyst for growth right through the region. The opportunity to bring kids into focus in a pathway event will be great. But the main question has always been about money,’ Stafford says.
‘In 2000, when we first started the EAP regional meetings in Auckland, Australia and New Zealand were always represented. They are still invited but they don’t always come now. We need to encourage a closer co-operation with our big brothers in the region,’ he continues.
Life as an Associate cricket representative
As an Associate representative on the ICC’s development and CEC groups, Stafford has been an influential voice for Associate cricket over many years.
‘My history with the ICC goes back a fair bit. I first sat on the development committee in 2002, representing the regions. From 2005, when the Affiliates got a vote, I became a global chairman of Affiliate nations. Now I sit on the CEC,” he states.
Stafford is particularly proud of the role he has played as part of the CEC group, fostering conversation and ultimately succeeding in increasing the number of participants at the ODI and T20 World Cups. Nevertheless, Stafford says that it’s a tough balancing act.
‘It’s very important for us to consider the impact of our decisions on everybody, as we do represent the interests of 93 associate countries, from the Falklands to Scotland and Netherlands. It must be noted that all of us Associates sacrificed a lot to see Afghanistan and Ireland become full members. It was us who paid for their transition, not the Full Members. It is difficult to ensure that everybody gets what they want but you push as hard as you can.’
Working towards a more egalitarian ICC?
While the ICC has been moving in the right direction with World Cup expansion, structured ODI leagues and live coverage of 41 qualifier events, Stafford insists that there is much more room for improvement.
‘I am still not satisfied with the current ICC voting structure and there are quite a few changes that I would like to see. Firstly, the non-voting Associate group of members need to be embraced as a part of the team without any restrictions. That would be the first step towards a more egalitarian ICC, whereby we only have one membership status, like most other major sports in the world.’
Currently, cricket maintains tiers of ‘status’, with only 12 full members, out of a possible 104. Contrast that with football and basketball, where the respective governing bodies have 211 and 213 members making no distinctions between them, or even rugby, which has 102 Full Members and 18 Associates.
Additionally, Stafford would like to see pathways to global events broadened and the criteria for Associate membership loosened.
‘I would like to see a wider pathway for all of the Associate members towards global events. Why can’t we have a global youth program that is funded by all members? If we have more kids coming through playing cricket at young age-levels, then every cricket country in the world is going to improve.’
‘I am appalled that we have stalled in adding new members and going out seeking new members over the last five years. We shouldn’t have any barriers to entry. As long as they are keen enough to put up a national cricket team or three to four cricket teams for a domestic competition, we should welcome them in,’ he continues.
Olympics and T10 Cricket
The conversation finally turns to the subject of cricket in Olympics. Upon questioning by podcast co-host Nick Skinner, Stafford admits that he remains skeptical about the T10 format despite its convenience.
‘From my old-fashioned perspective, I am not so sure if T10 creates proper cricketers. However, it is handy because we only have a couple of grounds In Vanuatu. So, T10 allows us to play three or four games a day, plus gets more people involved to have a crack and have some fun playing cricket.’
He also pours cold water on the idea that T10 is a more conducive format for Olympics inclusion.
‘There has been a lot of talk recently in the wider cricket community that T10 is the new panacea to making cricket more popular and gain entry into the Olympics. To me, that’s definitely not the case. For the International Olympic Committee (IOC), it’s not about the time it takes for a match and how many matches you can fit in a day. It’s rather the number of athletes that they will allow into the Olympics village.’