Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Cricket World Cup, or is it?

The Cricket World Cup got underway last weekend and aside from an awful England performance leading to a near scare against the Dutch it's hardly been an exciting first week and no one will be surprised at that fact.

Cricket suffers in the same way that rugby does to a lesser degree in that there are simply not enough nations playing at a competitive level to make it a 'true' World Cup. Cricket remains a sport that divides people like almost no other, loved feverishly by some whilst met with bemusement by much of the rest of the World that you can play a game of sport for five days and not have a positive result. These subtleties and nuances are what makes cricket such a fabulous spectacle to those that love it but at the same time make it so utterly inaccessible to those who do not. The World Cup is for the 'one day' version of the sport which is also unfortunately the most flawed of the three current formats, too short and with a meaningless middle section in each innings for the purists and still too long for the rest of the world.

The lack of competitiveness and length of the tournament are the two most biting issues that prevent this event from being a more compelling spectacle.

It takes one month before we get to end of the group games and then a little over another week to get to the final, meaning nearly six weeks will elapse from the time of the opening ceremony. This is for a tournament compromising of 14 teams. The football world cup manages to fit 32 teams into a schedule of approximately a month and herein lies the first part of the problem.

There are simply too many dead rubbers in the cricket World Cup due to the lack of depth of competitive nations in the sport. This is something that cannot be remedied overnight but it can be addressed and action can be taken. Rugby has suffered in this manner for many years but it is slowly changing. The emergence of Argentina and to a lesser degree Italy and the likes of Western Samoa have meant that shocks can lie in wait for the middle tier of teams at least if not for the very best.

Using Scotland as an example, we can illustrate this point clearly. In soccer, Spain are ranked No1 whilst Scotland rank a lowly 53rd. In rugby, New Zealand are ranked No1 whilst Scotland are ranked a more credible 9th. With cricket, Australia are ranked No1 in OD internationals and whilst Scotland are not amongst the fourteen competing nations at the World Cup it is safe to place them in the top twenty. Yet despite the disparity of these rankings, football remains far and away the sport where Scotland would have the biggest chance of an upset against the very best. Hence, it is the sport with the widest following because nearly every fan can watch any time with some hope of a result, be it a scraped one nil win or even a famous draw against a mightier team. Scotland in the top ten in the rugby world cup rankings have never beaten New Zealand for instance.

The nature of the sports and the scoring systems certainly add to the chances of upsets in football as it is such a low scoring game in comparison to rugby and one day cricket where draws are rare, in the extreme in the case of cricket. Having said that, the depth of nations playing the game is the overriding factor.

The second problem that the ICC World Cup has is the length of the tournament. One day cricket it seems suffers from a perennial problem. The ICC and the individual nations require funds. The lack of credible opposition or meaningful events means the top teams continually play each other in pointlessly long series -England played Australia SEVEN times at the end of a long Ashes tour and with the World Cup just weeks away. Whilst this serves in some way to remedy the financial issue for the nations, it simply serves to kill interest further in OD Internationals with saturation coverage of the same product and with huge over exposure of the top nations to each other. Rugby must be careful in the same way. The Northern Hemisphere 'Autumn Internationals' serve little purpose other than to feed the financial requirements of the nations involved, nothing meaningful other than pride is being played for.

Whilst pockets of huge interest such as the latter stages of the World Cup, the Ashes, India versus Pakistan or the Kiwis versus Australia remain, global interest in cricket looks to be dwindling. The West Indies, oft the most romanticised of teams looks to have had a dramatic fall away in interest as the globalisation of sport in the media gives viewers so many other more accessible options. Other than the money generated in spades by India and the enduring interest surrounding the England team, all nations and the ICC need to be highly aware of the problems facing the game in the medium term.

Indian cricket is currently in rude health with a team still including Sachin Tendulkar and the hugely successful IPL franchise. India must however wake up to the fact that without opposition, there will be no interest in the sport. It is the same problem Rangers and Celtic face in Scottish football where this lack of credible opposition has killed interest in the league curtailing their further interests. It is also no coincidence that the shorter and more advertisement friendly format of 20/20 has rejuvenated cricket in a way no one thought possible in the short term. They are dangerous laurels to rest on however as there is huge global competition for the viewers' attention - and money.

It was a sad sight in Chennai last Sunday when New Zealand took on Kenya. Everybody knew the result was a foregone conclusion so naturally few people paid to watch the game in person. That however is no excuse for an empty stadium. Why on earth are the ICC not ensuring that for games with no commerical interest that the tickets find their way to the local school children? It is they who will provide the future generation of cricket fans and the lifeblood for the sport, not the privileged few that have access to corporate hospitality or can afford to pay for tickets which are almost always now beyond the financial reach of the common fan.

The current format of the Cricket World Cup will not endure beyond another one or two tournaments unless radical action is taken. India will feel quite rightly that they deserve the lions' share of the financial rewards as they provide the vast majority of the paying TV audience and the sponsorship revenue. There will however be little to sponsor unless money is diverted and pumped into improving cricketing standards in countries such as Bangladesh, Holland and maybe even a rehabilitated Zimbabwe. Bringing cricket to the global masses may well be a bridge too far but improving the second tier of nations and providing some real competition would give cricket some long term hope. That and a shorter format could provide a much more meaningful competition with far greater interest - no nonsense.