Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Future of Cricket

The ICC really seem to be dragging their heals over the continued development of the game of cricket. The latest decision has been based on the financial concerns of their partners rather than concern for the future of the game.
The ICC had laid in place plans for a Test World Championship to be played in England in 2013. The top four ranked teams in the world would play off in two semi finals and one timeless test final. It would have been a spectacle to show case the most elite level of cricket in the world.
The current four top ranked test teams in the world are:
1. England
2. India
3. South Africa
4. Australia
Previously, Australia had been streets ahead of the rest, but they have now dropped back in to the pack. Recently Australia were ranked fifth behind Sri Lanka. A series win against Sri Lanka in August, a competitive tied series in South Africa and now a win against India at the MCG have shown that although Australia is playing catch up, they have not lost touch in remaining a competitive test outfit. In fact there may not have been a time when test cricket has been as competitive as it is now.
The ICC planned to stage the tournament in 2013, but ESPN Star Sports, who are the broadcast partners for the ICC indicated that they would prefer to broadcast a ICC Champions Trophy instead. The Champions trophy is a largely redundant tournament, considering there is still a ODI World Cup played. A Champions Trophy will yield 7 days of cricket in total. A test world championship would yield 15 days. Considering that the biggest market for watching cricket on tv is in India, it is surprising that ESPN believe that a Chamions Trophy would rate better.

This poor planning is rooted in a far bigger problem. There has been a perennial problem through out the history of cricket; the battle between conservatism and progress. Even from the early days in England there was a battle to stop gambling among the lower classes on cricket matches and to keep the game in the hands of the socially elite. When Australia (a nation with convict roots) defeated England in the first test match in 1877 it was seen as the "death of cricket" by many in England. It is interesting that the conservative forces in cricket have always been concerned about the game's "impending death."

The forces at play in England are interesting. In post war England much has been done to advance the game. The national team was opened up to working class players, which eventually led to a multi racial team. (England have been world leaders in equality- which seems quite contradictory to traditional notions of history.) One day cricket was invented in the 1960s in England. Then in 2003 Twenty 20 was also invented in England.
While England may have been the source of conservatism in world cricket in the past, that seems to have shifted. The ICC was originally a body heavily dominated by English and Australian representatives, based at the MCC at Lords in London. The ICC have now broken free of London and based themselves in Dubai. They have a strong Asian influence, but somehow they have carried with them the conservatism of old.

While England have provided the intellectual property for the last two cricket revolutions, Australia and then India have provided the momentum. World Series Cricket in the late 70s and early 80s made one day cricket the exciting contest that thrilled a new generation. The Indian Premier League has now brought the same thrill to Twenty 20 cricket.

People were once afraid that one day cricket would kill test cricket. But thirty years of prolific one day cricket around the world have not damaged test cricket at all. In that time the game of test cricket has sped up, thanks to the evolution of skills from the one day game. The popularity of test cricket has ebbed and flowed but it has overall maintained its appeal.

The ICC seem to be losing sight of the way forward in international cricket now. The glaring problem is that the calendar is overfull with meaningless contests. There is so much one day cricket played around the world, the games counting for very little. The World Cup itself has lost its appeal too. To some the way forward seems clear, but the ICC are stuck in the mud. Graeme Swann, a professional cricketer from England seems to be the first to publicly call for the sacking of the one day game.

A new plan:
Phase out one day cricket altogether. 
-England has already reduced their one day games at domestic level to 40 overs a side.
-Australia have a 45 over per side game with split innings of 20 and 25 overs.
This experimentation is due to the 50 over game losing interest among the public.

Expand Twenty 20 cricket significantly.
The birth of the Indian Premier League and the Big Bash League in Australia has seen the prominence of the T20 game grow. The revolution in cricket is seeing the game switch from being a representative based game (club, province, state, country) to a league based game.
To keep things simple and allow the easy transition to a league based game, T20 should only be played at international level on rare occasions.

Only play T20 internationals as part of a T20 world cup, or as preparation and qualification games for such a tournament.

Create windows in the yearly schedule where T20 tournaments can be played and when international players are free to play also.

In Australia this could look something like:

- An 8 week window for the Big Bash League, with all Australian players available. (No ODIs, no Twenty 20 internationals.) This would create a demand for the league as the only variety of the short game available to watch.
- The rest of the Summer dedicated to first class cricket at state level and to test matches.
- A lead up period at the start of the season where all Australian team players play first class cricket for their state.

At Associate level it could look something like:

-Maintain the first class four day competition between the Associate nations.
-Encourage the Associate nations to compete in Twenty 20 leagues around the world. I.e Canada compete in the Caribbean competition (already occurring); Kenya, Zimbabwe, Namibia in an African Twenty 20 league; Netherlands, Scotland, Ireland in a European Twenty 20 league.

In short, the game should be simplified to two fields- First class cricket (including test cricket) and Twenty 20 League cricket (but with a World Cup, the same way that soccer has league matches and then internationals).

This change would allow for the Twenty leagues to flourish, which would actually expand the game at domestic level in all countries, while at the same time giving some of the focus back to test cricket as the premium international contest.

It remains to be seen whether the ICC have the foresight to allow for these changes. Their role is to be custodians of the game not motivated by their own financial interests.

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