Is the Cricket World Cup a 'Global' Competition?

The 2019 cricket World Cup has fewer teams participating in it than in the last three World Cups, which questions the International Cricket Council's (ICC) plans to expand the sport's footprint. If cricket is to be a truly global sport, it must aspire for a place in international sporting competitions.

From Antarctica to Western Samoa, Charlie Connelly’s delightful little book, Elk Stopped Play, documents the esoteric places where cricket is played. The book’s title is drawn from an incident where a “giant, snorting half-ton antlered male thundered across the field during a Finnish league fixture” and stopped play (Connelly 2014). Connelly’s edited volume is an eloquent rebuttal to what the author Charles Box had said of cricket in 1886: “The game is essentially English, and though out countrymen carry it abroad wherever they go, it is difficult to inoculate or knock it into the foreigner” (Connelly 2014).

The 2019 World Cup Format

While Connelly’s book is a testament to the global appeal of cricket, the ongoing cricket World Cup has only 10 participating nations. This is due to the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) decision to keep associate member nations[1] out of the World Cup. In comparison,  the 2015 and 2011 editions had 14 teams, and the 2007 World Cup had 16 teams participating, the highest ever.
Fewer teams is not the only unusual feature of the 2019 World Cup. This is also the first time that two Test-playing nations are not present in the World Cup. In 2017, two new members—Ireland and Afghanistan—were inducted into the elite Test playing club, increasing the number of full ICC members from 10 to 12. Two full members—Ireland and Zimbabwe—failed to qualify due to a qualification process that saw teams ranked ninth to 12th compete for two spots in the World Cup. In addition, the 2019 World Cup’s format is significantly different: a round-robin format where all teams play each other, followed by a semi-final and final. Even the early World Cups, which had fewer teams, had two groups. For instance, the 1983 world cup, which India famously won, had two groups of four teams each with each team playing against each other twice.

Instead of doing its best to expand the sport’s outreach, the ICC is actually reducing the number of teams at cricket’s premier tournament. While this might seem counter-intuitive, the ICC believes that it has good reason for pruning the field. The primary motive for reducing the number of participants, according to the council, is to make the tournament more competitive and reduce “inconsequential” matches (Gollapudi 2015). What is left unsaid is that matches involving associate nations do not draw a large enough audience, and are hence unprofitable for broadcasters. The new format is meant to ensure that the best teams progress to the knockout stages. Again, the unwritten rationale here is the insurance against a shock result that sends one of the bigger teams—India, Australia and England—tumbling out of the World Cup.

Broadly speaking, two questions can be raised on the number of teams in the World Cup, and to a lesser extent, on its format. First is the practical aspect of whether the ICC’s stated goals of a competitive and fair tournament are being met, and second, whether these goals are compatible with the broader ambition of widening cricket’s reach.

On the first question, the jury is out on whether a smaller field and  round-robin format provides for more competitive matches. Evidence from the ongoing World Cup is mixed: at the midway mark, there were arguably only a handful of matches that had been really competitive. For the 2015 World Cup, an analysis shows that of the 20 matches played between full members, only six of them could be considered close. The 20 matches between full members and associate members, on the other hand, had nearly the same number of close contests. In fact, it was the two matches played between associate members—Afghanistan vs Scotland and Ireland vs United Arab Emirates—that were tantalisingly close. The round-robin format also ensures that the world cup remains an exceptionally long tournament despite having fewer teams than in 2015. The number of matches being played has also roughly remained the same, with 48 matches in 2019 compared to 49 in 2015. However, the number of days over which the tournament is being played has increased from 43 in 2015 to 46 in 2019. Fewer teams has not meant a leaner schedule.

It is the second question of expanding the reach of cricket that is far more vexing. Opinion is divided on whether the world cup should only showcase the best teams or be more inclusive. The late New Zealand great, Martin Crowe, was dead against the idea of reducing the number of teams in the world cup. He argued for a tournament that truly expanded the game, a world cup that “takes cricket to a new level of exposure and support.” (Crowe 2105).  He also suggested an alternative to the existing world cup in the form of a World Series League, with two separate conferences of nine teams each based on alternate ranking, all playing each other (eight matches each) for a total of 72 matches over the first 36 days in league play. 

In a similar vein, Sachin Tendulkar also spoke against a smaller field in the world Cup, suggesting that the world cup should try to accommodate 25 teams. “It is not just about the top six or seven sides. If we are to globalise this game we have to get more and more people excited about cricket,” he said (Farrell 2015). There are others, however, who believe that a “middle ground” can be reached by having a ten-team tournament, as in 2019, with a qualifying leg added at the beginning of the World Cup (Bal 2015).

Indeed, the example of Afghanistan is perhaps the best argument for encouraging cricket in unlikely locales. The fairy tale story of Afghanistan’s incredible rise is too well known to document in detail here. From becoming an associate nation in 2001, a year after the ban on cricket was lifted by the Taliban, Afghanistan played its first world cup in 2015 and even won a match. Two years later, the Afghans, who learned to play cricket in refugee camps in Pakistan, and are now based out of India, achieved Test-playing status and subsequently qualified for the 2019 World Cup.

While Afghanistan’s success stands as a signal example of cricket flourishing in adverse conditions, it must also be recognised that cricket is an atypical sport. The spread of cricket is hampered not only by the length of the game but also by its complexity, both in terms of rules and its cultural specificities. It cannot be compared to sports like football that are played in every corner of the globe, and where there is talk of increasing the number of teams from 32 to 48 in future world cups.

Having said that, cricket is a popular sport. On numbers alone, cricket might be a contender for the “second favourite” sport in the world after football if viewership is taken into account (Economist 2011). This is primarily due to cricket’s popularity in two countries,  India and Pakistan,  whose combined population makes up over one-fifth of the world’s population. If you add Bangladesh—the world’s eighth most populous nation—the number of cricket fans go up even further. In the 2015 World Cup, a billion people reportedly watched the India-Pakistan match. However, beyond the Indian subcontinent and parts of the British Empire, cricket has been unable to make a significant dent. Even in countries like the United Kingdom and Australia, cricket has lost out in popularity to other sports.

The comparison with Baseball

Baseball might be the closest to cricket in terms of its complexity and concentrated popularity. Just as cricket was a British export, baseball—once dubbed “America’s game” by Walt Whitman—is popular in countries that have seen a major American presence or influence. In Japan, for instance, where baseball is an obsession, it was the Americans who first introduced the game. Robert Whiting, in The Chrysanthemum and the Bat: Baseball Samurai Style, notes, “Baseball has become a fixture in Japanese life since it was first introduced in 1873, some twenty years after Commodore Perry … visited the island nation and thus ended more than two centuries of isolation” (Whiting 1977). Americans also popularised the game in other Asian countries, such as Taiwan and Korea, as well as in parts of Central and South America. However, baseball does not have a long-standing global tournament. The World Baseball Classic, a global baseball tournament involving 16 nations, is of fairly recent vintage. It started in 2006 and there have been four editions so far.

Unlike cricket, though, baseball has had a presence in the Olympics. After a few sporadic appearances beginning in 1904, baseball was an official Olympic sport from 1992 until it was scrapped in 2012. In contrast, cricket, after making a solitary appearance in 1900, was never played again at the Olympics. The ICC has backed the idea of cricket as an Olympic sport, but the Board of Control for Cricket in India has opposed it mainly on the grounds of a packed cricketing calendar (Kalra 2014). Oddly enough, cricket has only figured once in the Commonwealth Games (CWG). In 2022, women’s cricket is set to feature in the CWG. Cricket was included in the 2010 and 2014 Asian Games but dropped for the 2018 Asian Games. India did not participate in either edition. Cricket is expected to figure again in the 2022 Asiad.

If cricket is to truly become global, the sport, in its Twenty20 avatar, must aspire to become an Olympic sport or at least a regular part of global sporting competitions. Finding a regular place in the Olympics or even in the Asian Games will make associate member nations take a greater interest in the sport. The example of kabaddi is instructive in this regard: a quintessential Indian sport, kabaddi has been included in the Asian Games as an official event since 1990. While India regularly won the gold medal till 2014, the 2018 Asian Games saw Iran win gold and South Korea silver. So also the prospect of a medal in the Asiad or Olympics could spur nations like China, an associate member of the ICC, to at least seriously consider cricket. While this might seem somewhat far-fetched, we must not forget that the “Chinaman,[2]” a type of cricket delivery, is named after Ellis Achong, a spinner of Chinese ancestry.  


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