Restricting tournament to ten-team shoot-out is folly
Helping the smaller countries survive in the long-term should be ICC’s next move
MOST sports governing bodies love talking about development and expansion, even if they only pay lip service to the concept.
In football, for instance, the World Cup has doubled in size since the days when Bobby Moore lifted the trophy, while the next European Championship will have 24 teams.
More games, more revenue from TV broadcasters, more fans in different parts of the continent . . . even if it might dilute the quality a little, you can understand why the panjandrums keep saying bigger is better.
Cricket, though, seems to live in a parallel universe, judging by recent developments. In 1975, when the game launched its first World Cup, there were eight nations involved including East Africa: this was in the days when South Africa’s apartheid system meant it was ostracised from international sporting competition, and while Zimbabwe was still known as Rhodesia. Since then, there have been a range of formats for the global event, and fleeting success for some of the lesser nations, including Kenya in 2003, but the tournament has invariably struggled to move beyond its traditional heartlands.
One might suppose the solution was to invest more in the grassroots and reward those who thrive. And, to some extent, the ICC did that on Wednesday when it announced that Ireland and Afghanistan were being granted the chance to qualify automatically for the 2019 event. But, in the same media release, they also confirmed the next World Cup will only feature ten teams, two fewer than in the imminent 2015 festival in Australasia.
Frankly, this decision makes no sense whatsoever. For the last two decades, the ICC has ploughed money into its associate membership and nurtured cricket across the planet.
In some places, the process has worked about as well as Nigel Farage arranging a speech at the Notting Hill Carnival. The USA is apparently still convinced that, as the late Robin Williams once remarked, it is “baseball on valium”.
The Kenyans have gone downhill fast in the last decade, the Dutch have plummeted from beating England in a World T20 contest to failing to qualify for the 2015 World Cup, and Scotland have toiled to live up to the exalted standards they set in winning the 2005 ICC Trophy, although they are moving forward with a spring in their step again en route to New Zealand.
But there have also been success stories, with the Irish beating Pakistan and England at different World Cups and one or two of the other so-called “minnows” enjoying spells of success against the ICC full members. The reality is that new stars don’t emerge overnight, this isn’t the X Factor but a sport that requires decades of encouragement, allied to the creation of junior programmes, a philosophy of preaching to the unconverted, and allowing developing countries to create the correct infrastructure and facilities (and attract sponsors and media coverage) in their homeland.
This simply won’t happen if the ICC restrict the World Cup to a ten-team shoot-out. Indeed, as things stand, they are effectively admitting that the controversial admission of Bangladesh to the Test circuit in 2000 was a premature act of folly that has yielded no positive reward. Zimbabwe too, one of the supposed elite, have achieved precisely nothing in recent years, while, on the evidence of India’s results in the last calendar year, even former giants – and reigning world champions – are in danger of becoming whipping boys.
Cricket can’t afford to stand still, or narrow its horizons. It needs to accept there are too many Twenty20 events and not enough focus on countries rather than short-term franchises.
But the authorities appear transfixed by the wham-bam phenomenon and ticked off with 50-over ODIs. This is entirely the wrong emphasis. The only way to help the associate members is to expose them to more regular interaction with the cream. Yes, they will suffer some horrible defeats. Yes, it might be painful on and off the field. But eventually, as the Irish have shown, the best of the newcomers will get their act together and face down the superpowers.
Rugby is spreading its gospel into Russia, into China, wherever there is any interest in rucks and mauls. Football, for all its faults and corrupt stewardship, is soaring in popularity in Asia, Africa and North America.
How dare cricket, which has always been an activity confined to a small clique, attempt to limit its horizons and turn back the clock?
PUNCHING ABOVE THEIR WEIGHT: The O’Brien brothers have led Ireland to famous wins at the 2011 and 2015 World Cups but the tournament is shrinking when it should be growing