The Ashes understandably took the lion’s share of cricket fans’ attention this summer but the World Cup qualifying tournament that was being played out in Zimbabwe was arguably even more significant. You would hardly have known from the cricket media that it was even taking place. The Cricketer magazine devoted 8 lines on its’ news page to the entire tournament. Maybe this is because the whole competition, while full of great skill and thrilling matches, summed up everything that is currently askew in the global game.
There are many things wrong with the way in which cricket is run but the 10 team World Cup is surely the game’s greatest travesty.
At a time where every other major sport is seeking to expand and reach out across the world, cricket is withdrawing inwards and closing its’ doors. Football has extended its’ World Cup to 48 teams, although the motives for this are admittedly questionable, and rugby union’s global showpiece next month will include 20 nations, many of which are still developing at the game.
Cricket, however, will exclude almost all of its’ developing nations and some of its’ established ones from October’s showpiece for the second tournament in a row. This time, there will be no place for the West Indies, winners of the first two World Cups. While it is inarguable that cricket in the Caribbean has declined at an astonishing rate in recent years, exclusion from the game’s biggest global event is hardly the way to help it regrow.
For the second World Cup in a row, Ireland will also be absent. Now a Test nation and a side responsible for two of the biggest shocks in World Cup history, when they beat Pakistan in 2007 before coming from a near impossible position to vanquish Andrew Strauss’ Englishmen in 2011, the men in green will join the ranks of teams that left southern Africa with the door of cricket’s top table firmly closed to them.
Scotland perhaps, will feel even more hard done by. Having defeated Ireland and the West Indies, they lost out to the Netherlands in what turned out to be a virtual knockout match at the end of the tournament. Scottish cricket has been through a lot of upheaval in recent times. Imagine what a date in India for the World Cup could have done for growing the game.
The one positive ray of light came from the performance of the Netherlands themselves who, under captain Scott Edwards and inspired by the sparkling performances of Bas De Leede, overcame the odds to qualify alongside Sri Lanka for the tournament. Given the resources of Dutch cricket this is an extraordinary achievement and one which The Bouncer will cover in more detail in the lead up to the World Cup.
The greatest heartbreak ,however, belonged to the host nation Zimbabwe. For those of us who followed the game in the 1990’s Zimbabwean cricket will always hold a special place in our hearts. The nation of Henry Olonga, Heath Streak and the Flower brothers has been through many travails in recent years and their cricket has suffered with their people. However, the revival of Zimbabwean cricket in recent years has been one of the game’s greatest joys. Firdose Moonda wrote eloquently during the tournament about what the rebirth of the game in the country meant to local people. Almost every match for the home nation saw packed stands, dancing fans and large groups of school children. However, defeat to Sri Lanka and a shock reversal to Scotland was enough to deny Zimbabwe their chance at the World Cup. Cricket’s showpiece will be denied the mercurial brilliance of all rounder Sikander Raza and his teammates and it will be far poorer for it.
So how did we get to this point and what can be done about it?
The solution is obvious, a 16 team World Cup with four groups of four, quarter finals, semis and a final, a similar format that the European football championships adopted with great success between 1996 and 2012. Of course, this will never happen because, not only does it mean a significant reduction in games and overall tournament time, something which would make the competition far more watchable but would harm the ICC’s coffers but, more significantly, it would guarantee only 3 India games, something that last happened in 2007, the only previous time the ICC adopted a 4 groups of 4 format. ICC insiders insist that 16 team World Cups would have become the norm after that had India and Pakistan not both been knocked out in the group stage after shock defeats by Bangladesh and Ireland respectively. Thus, not only did viewing figures decline with only a trio of India matches to watch but, even worse, the expected money spinning India v Pakistan Super 8 clash in Barbados became a significantly less lucrative tie between Ireland and Bangladesh.
Since then, the ICC and its Indian paymasters at the BCCI have ensured that every World Cup follows roughly the same format, a maxing out of the possible number of Indian games and a guaranteed clash between India and Pakistan. This necessitates large groups of 6 or 7 teams or, even worse, one large round robin so that even if India fail to make the knockout stage the ICC can sell the TV rights with a guaranteed minimum number of India fixtures, ensuring huge viewing figures from the nation’s 1.5 billion cricket fans. Broadcasters like predictability and reliable ratings winners and televised sport is no exception, as we have seen from the current restructuring of football’s European club competitions.
The cricket World Cup no longer exists as a genuine contest to find the greatest cricket team on earth but as a revenue exercise for the BCCI, which can guarantee huge broadcast deals through Indian TV network Star Sports, the ICC’s exclusive global broadcast partner, and an India V Pakistan clash that can only occur at World Cup’s due to the nations’ continuing political tensions. The rest of the cricketing world, in particular the Associate nations and lower ranked Full Members, are merely extras milling around on India’s stage and there is no reason to invite too many of the paupers to the ruling classes’ feast.
The most frustrating thing about this is that, arguably, cricket’s global reach has never been greater. Thanks to franchise T20 leagues around the world anyone from anywhere can reach global fame and make a living playing the game, regardless of whether they have the good fortune to be born in an ICC full member country. Thus, Sandeep Lamichhane of Nepal is able to make a living in leagues across the world and Rashid Khan, despite the paucity of Afghanistan’s international schedule, has been able to become a household name and showcase his skills as one of the greatest short form leg spinners in the game. Franchise leagues may not be to everyone’s tastes, and they are certainly not the favourite format of this writer, but they have democratised cricket to a previously unseen degree.
However, the flip side of this is that, thanks to the behemoth that is the IPL, the franchise system has served to make one nation stronger and richer above all others. Therefore, there is one area where the democratisation has not quite reached and that is the ICC, which the BCCI continues to hold sway. The new global distribution deal further emphasis this point, with India massively increasing its share of ICC revenue to nearly 40% and the 96 associate nations sharing a mere 11% between them. While it is inarguable that the Indian market is cricket’s biggest financial driver, it is remarkably short sighted of the BCCI and ICC to fail to realise that, without growing the game across the world, even Indian cricket will suffer in the long term.
From 2027 the World Cup will return to 14 teams but if there is one that events in Zimbabwe this summer have brought home to us, it is that even that may not be enough. Cricket’s reach is expanding across the globe and the ICC should exist to nurture this instead of suffocating it.
From Bulawayo to Belfast, fans deserve more than crumbs from the ICC and the BCCI’s table and a whole generation of cricketers should not be denied the chance to showcase their skills on the biggest stage.