With the vast majority of ICC Men’s World Cup tickets snapped up and sell-out crowds turning out to many of the fixtures so far in this year’s tournament, the sport seems to be in rude health. Indeed, with as many as 2.5 billion fans worldwide, cricket is officially the second most popular sport in the world behind football. However, although this number appears quite significant on paper, when taken from a geographical standpoint, it is quite clearly restricted to the United Kingdom, the Australian continent, the Indian subcontinent in Asia, the Caribbean islands and a few pockets of Africa that include South Africa, Kenya and Zimbabwe. Most of these countries are, of course, former colonies of the United Kingdom, and cumulatively the countries are home to around a quarter of the world’s population already (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in particular) – demonstrating that global awareness of cricket is in fact very low; much of the world does not understand cricket nor the buzz that surrounds events such as the ongoing World Cup.
Indeed, with this being the case, it comes as a massive surprise that the International Cricket Council (ICC) decided to trim the number of participating teams in this year’s World Cup and the 2023 version to the lowest it has been since 1992. This only serves to decrease the global popularity of the game and marginalize the Associate Nations, a few of which put on a brilliant show in the 2015 edition of the World Cup. Ireland and Zimbabwe were always in the hunt to reach the quarterfinals of the tournament, whereas Bangladesh, who have now established themselves as more than giant-killers, defeated England to qualify for the quarterfinals. In fact, with the number of teams participating in this year’s World Cup at a staggeringly low ten, this is part of a gradual decline in worldwide participation that is nothing if not disconcerting and indicative of a continued elitism in the sport. The 2007 World Cup was probably the best World Cup played so far from a participation point of view. A total of 16 teams got to play in the tournament, which again decreased to 14 in 2011 and 2015. This is a stark contrast to the FIFA World Cup and the Rugby World Cup, where giants are occasionally eliminated by lower-ranked and underrated teams, which adds to the excitement and global following of the event.
Rugby Union in particular, as a sport which is no bigger than cricket and has similar origins in the Commonwealth, is a model to follow. Rugby’s version of the World Cup comprises of 20 nations. World Rugby, the sport’s governing body, is considering increasing the number to 24 for future tournaments in order to allow the sport to take up a truly global position, one which helps smaller nations gain exposure and so increase sponsorship, bringing in more money to develop the game. In contrast, cricket’s reductive and retrenching strategy for its World Cup is not conducive to growth. Moreover, rugby has benefited in terms of international exposure from re-joining the Olympic Games after a 92-year absence; twelve nations competed in men’s and women’s rugby sevens tournaments in Rio in 2016. It is to be hoped that cricket will follow suit and apply for Olympic inclusion in the near future.
World Rugby and International Cricket also have very different governance structures. Rugby has more of an inclusive attitude with the priority being to develop smaller teams by not depriving them of funds and offering more of a balance within the weighting of the voting structure between “Tier One” and “Tier Two” nations. Cricket has less of this expansionary zeal, dedicating most of its reforms, revenue and voting power to the three richest cricketing countries: Australia, England and India. The intention of the ICC is certainly not to stagnate the worldwide popularity of cricket, but that is potentially what might happen if this narrow-minded approach persists. The sport will remain something of a quaint British relic that is fortunately fervently followed in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
This brings me back to the organisation of the World Cup. This year’s cricket World Cup in the U.K. is essentially invisible to a large part of the world as, unlike the FIFA World Cup, cricket’s showpiece spectacle is limited to a reduced number of teams and held in an all-too-familiar destination. Looking back to the 2007 edition of the ICC World Cup, this was a FIFA-esque tournament with each group having four teams, wherein the top two teams progressed to the subsequent rounds. When there are fewer teams in a group, what happens is that once a Test-playing nation is upset by one of the minnows, there is little room to recover. One shock defeat, and the World Cup is as good as over for a major team.
In 2007, India and Pakistan were eliminated in precisely this fashion in the group stages. With two major sides eliminated in such an embarrassing fashion, this became the talking point of the World Cup and attendance at the host stadiums consequently declined due to the exit of two major teams, particularly that of India, which resulted in lower than expected revenues for the ICC. Therefore, possibly as a matter of precaution, the ICC decided to revise the format for 2011 and have been decreasing the number of participating nations ever since, perhaps to ensure that all major teams have sufficient chances to recover if they receive a shock defeat at the hands of one of the lower ranked teams. In so doing, the ICC have completely obliterated the surprise factor of the tournament by limiting the number of teams to ten. They have made it a round-robin tournament instead of a more exciting knockout-themed event.
Not only have emerging nations been cut out of the tournament, but also it will be played in the U.K. for the fifth time in twelve World Cups, a type of monopoly that doesn’t exist in other major sports. Indeed, cricket has long been dominated by the so-called “big three” power nations of India, England and Australia, with each of the upcoming major men’s events being held in those countries until 2023. Perhaps the hegemony of cricket can learn from basketball, for which the World Cup is being held in China in September this year, or the Rugby World Cup which is being staged in Japan from September to November. The ICC desperately needs to develop a global vision because the world is changing rapidly and there needs to be more effort in promoting the game internationally.