Can you guess which sport is considered by some statistical measures to be the third most popular team sport on the planet? It’s also the most popular team sport in a selection of countries whose combined population is approximately 1.7 billion people – around a quarter of the world’s population.
The sport in question is cricket. Along with being the world’s foremost bat and ball sport, cricket is the only mainstream sport in danger of becoming irrelevant within the next decade.
Unlike most other international sports, cricket receives the majority of its support and coverage at the international level, rather than at club or provincial level. With a couple of notable exceptions, domestic tournaments are played in front of echoing, empty stadiums, and they’re virtually absent from free-to-air television broadcasts.
In many countries where cricket is popular, domestic-level cricket receives barely enough funding to support a professional league, much less a fully professional second division. Instead this top-heavy system is fed by a large pool of enthusiastic but chronically underfunded amateurs.
Given the emphasis on international cricket, it’s strange that the sport has no established, consistent league or international playing schedule. Instead international cricket is based entirely on tours; long, long tours of foreign lands that made sense back in the days when it would take teams a couple of months to travel by ship to meet their opponents.
Even internationally, cricket isn’t doing terribly well. At the game’s recent quadrennial international tournament, the team hosting the tournament played in front of a half-empty stadium in the quarterfinals. The vast majority of the group stage games failed to draw capacity crowds, and some drew no crowds at all.
The organisers of the tournament subsequently decided to reduce the number of competitors eligible for the next tournament in four years’ time.
This move once again set cricket apart. Organisers of one of the sport’s biggest international tournaments are actively attempting to decrease the number of countries that participate.
So what’s going wrong?
Pinning down the source of cricket’s slow decline is easy. One need look no further than the plush Dubai quarters of the cricket’s international ruling body, the International Cricket Council (ICC), to find what ails the game.
This organization is run less like a democratic convention of its 106 member nations, than as an organized crime syndicate where a handful of powerful families strive to ensure that every decision remotely within their sphere of influence is made to their personal benefit.
The ICC currently has no president, making South African CEO, David Richardson, the de facto head of the organization. His primary duty appears to be informing the international media of the strange decisions made by the ruling families of the ICC with gravitas and conviction.
If this picture of the ICC seems sounds unfairly unflattering, you’re invited to consider this organization’s recent attempt to create some sort of structure in international cricket by setting up an international test championship to replace the current haphazard test touring schedule.
In the course of proceedings, a sensible two league arrangement was proposed with promotion and relegation between these two leagues. This would not only create structure for the existing test playing nations, but spread test cricket to the second tier of cricket playing nations while also giving them the opportunity to break through at the top level.
Unfortunately the inclusive part of the proposed arrangement - the promotion/relegation part - promptly found itself lodged firmly in the craws of the three heavyweight crime families in the organization – England, India and Australia.
Despite the fact that these three countries enjoy the lion’s share of international broadcasting revenue from the sport, despite the fact that all three are home to commercially viable domestic tournaments, despite the fact that they are all three routinely successful at test level, they recoiled at the unlikely prospect of relegation at some distant point in the future.
Faced with the vague threat of having to join the second tier of test cricket if they finished last in the proposed international test championship; Australia, England and India promptly proposed exempting themselves from relegation under any circumstances.
This astonishing suggestion was nothing less than the equivalent of Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United permanently exempting themselves from relegation from the Premier League.
Needless to say this did not go down well with the other member organizations, and after a few press briefings and meetings, India, England and Australia decided to eliminate the threat of their relegation from the test championship by removing the tournament itself from the ICC’s agenda altogether.
In a final flourish of myopia and self-interest, the ICC then used the debacle as an opportunity to instead resurrect the defunct ICC Champions Cup – a quadrennial 10 team one day international World Cup in everything but name.
This decision left international cricket with three major international cup tournaments lined up every four years, the current test touring schedule with its heavy emphasis of England vs India vs Australia tours untouched, and the associate members of the ICC excluded from yet another major international tournament.
Follow the money
The root of the evil which eats away at the heart of cricket, and encourages the selfish malice of its most powerful members is, of course, quick and easy money. This money is generated from the massive broadcasting deals generated in the Asian subcontinent whenever India, Australia or England clash at the international level.
This beast gets hungrier the more it is fed, so when these countries are not engaged at international level, their pockets are further lined with broadcasting loot by their respective T20 tournaments. Critically, each of these tournament draws liberally on the talents of various cricketers from other test-playing countries who are paid large sums of money to play for random franchises for a couple of months at a time.
So not only is the test schedule skewed towards lucrative encounters between the ‘big three’, but these countries also get lion’s share of broadcasting revenue at the domestic level while effectively forcing top players from South Africa, New Zealand, Pakistan and the West Indies into becoming cricketing privateers who spend the majority of their time playing cricket abroad while their domestic leagues teeter on the verge of extinction.
In defending and perpetuating this arrangement, the ICC is slowly but surely creating a future where England, Australia and India will be the only viable markets for the sport. A future where enthusiasm for the sport will die in a number of countries who once embraced the game with passion, and the flow of talent from the other test playing nations will slow to a dribble.
To be fair to the ICC kingpins, they are not breaking the mould in abandoning perspective and long term planning in favour of a place at the cash trough. However, they can’t possibly be unaware of the impact that their stranglehold on the governance of the sport is having on it, or the kind of impact this type of thinking has had on other organizations in the past.
It’s therefore hard to arrive at any conclusion other than that the ICC is entirely willing to sacrifice the growth of cricket as a global sport, and even kill the professional game in many member nations, in order to further consolidate power and wealth amongst the ICC's three most powerful members.
If they succeed in this, they will no doubt end up fantastically wealthy, and with numerous world titles to stow away in their trophy cabinets. But they’ll only have achieved this by besting once proud paupers in one-sided fights while the rest of the world looked on with either disinterest or disgust.
It’s a future that anyone who cares about the game should refuse to contemplate, let alone permit.
The game of cricket has a tradition of player rebellion. There’s always the hope that other member nations of the ICC could break away from the organization and do something positive for the growth and future of the game.
Here are some simple goals and suggestions that could actually work in the best interests of all stakeholders in the game:
- Focus on the re-invigoration of domestic cricket. This could easily be achieved with the assurance that players in national teams would be available for a significant portion of the matches played in their domestic leagues.
- The domestic scene would need to be structured around T20 cricket. This is where the public interest lies. It’s domestic cricket that provides the best opportunities for ordinary people with jobs to watch and support the game.
- Domestic competitions could be used as qualifying tournaments for regional tournaments. The groundwork for this has already been laid with the creation of the T20 Champions League. The tournaments could then be used to determine an international club champion on an annual basis.
- With domestic cricket resuscitated, international cricket matches could be scheduled to take place at the conclusion of the domestic season. International teams could be placed into a structured two-tier league system of eight teams each, with promotion and relegation between the leagues.
- Each team in each league would play the other team in a three-match series, comprising a test match, an ODI and a T20 played over a period of two weeks. Points would be awarded according to the result of each fixture, and these would contribute to a team’s overall league standing. Each team could play four of these series a year, over a period of eight weeks, with the winner of the league crowned every two years.
This approach would revive the domestic game and create context and coherence for international series. It would also provide a much needed opportunity for new talent to make it into international teams.
The glut of international fixtures would be cleared away, leaving behind eagerly anticipated, biennial clashes between the various teams, with each match really meaning something.
This wouldn’t necessarily spell the end of the Ashes or other major test series, which could take their rightful places as popular quadrennial events, in the mould of the rugby union’s Lions tours.
This arrangement would also set the inverted pyramid of international cricket back onto its base, ensuring that international game becomes the cherry on top rather than the means by which the sport commits slow suicide.