Last week, Afghanistan continued their underdog rise and qualified for the 2015 World Cup to be played in Australia and New Zealand. It’s an endearing story which has touched the hearts of many, and a team that five years ago played in division five of the World Cricket League is now set for their World Cup debut. It’s another reminder that associates and affiliates deserve more opportunities than they are given. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.
Cricket has grown and keeps on growing tremendously in many countries, but those countries who do not have full-member status often get the short end of the stick in terms of playing opportunities, against the bigger teams anyway. It’s mostly down to the appeal of playing them in terms of TV revenue. TV execs and those who make important decisions usually assume nobody wants to watch a big team play a little guy. Just take Ireland, for example. Due to the ECB wriggling their way into hustling for a deal with Sky Sports, Ireland are not allowed to play any home fixtures which clash with England’s over the summer. In return, to repay the gesture, they visit the country once a year. All of this is little more than assumption, however, since the gauge to judge interest has been largely limited to World Cups.
While one-day and T20 cricket make up a large part of TV revenues, they are far too often played without context. A tri-series here, a bonnet of one-day games after a Test series there and in every single case, when full-members play these games, they hold little to no context. Yes, there is always a World Cup to build towards, but those are often far away and the force-feeding of one-day and now T20 cricket are bordering on viewing exhaustion. In an era where cricket is constantly competing for interest, that’s a dangerous thing. In a seven-match ODI series, how many of those games actually matter? Perhaps how many matter actually doesn’t matter, since there will still be eyeballs on the TV, but it creates a false perception of interest and it can’t last.
Forcing qualifiers does not only offer a way to dilute the fixture list throughout the year, but it’s the ideal way to offer additional context and even excitement. Add context and you are likely to add eyeballs to viewership. It also means that Test series can be just Test series and the cricketing fatigue which so often sets in afterwards can be avoided. Add to that the fact that broadcasting revenue generated from these kinds of games can be pooled together and distributed based on winning/losing percentage and there is a far better business model in place than the current system. It will foster a far healthier cricketing ecosystem for both teams and the ICC.
It’s not that hard. Fifa are hardly a benchmark for morals or adequate management, but their way of giving everyone a shot at qualifying for a place at a soccer World Cup is at least something they manage to get right.
It is not inconceivable that these teams could all be pooled by continent to square off against each other in groups and eventually against the “big teams” of that continent in order to secure qualification. The current system, which works through the World Cricket League, is adequate in its essence, but nobody should be so privileged that they are granted automatic entry into a World Cup. While there is no need for South Africa to play against a Division 8 side like Ghana for qualification, and the top sides have been established, why shouldn’t they play Kenya, Ireland or the Netherlands for a place once the World Cricket League has whittled down its divisions to include its bests teams?
Sure, the smaller guys might still get pummelled, but it is at least starting to build towards giving the one-day and T20 format some more context than X playing Y again to make up a shortfall in revenue. It helps smaller teams gain experience and, if revenue is pooled, it helps them generate an income to increase their resources and it creates awareness around the game in the smaller nations where the concept of cricket is still novel.
The World Cup doesn’t need to be a long and drawn-out spectacle with far too many teams participating and “meaningless” games where a full member will likely trounce one of the smaller guys, but it can comprise teams who have earned the right to be there. There are enough teams in the different regions across the world to allow for a grouped qualification similar to the Soccer World Cup’s process.
A 14-team final draw is fine, but it becomes far better when it is given some context. In the first few years, the minnows might get constantly hammered, but qualifying but it’s setting in place a platform which will eventually benefit everyone – from the smaller guys gaining experience to the bigger nations being allowed to play more Tests once the broadcasting revenue from the qualifiers becomes significant – which it will.
To do this, full-members who have been spoilt by the luxury of automatic entry will have to agree and the ICC will have to be pretty ballsy to set it in motion. Many full members might view this approach as nothing more than a burden, but for the sake of fairness, it’s something to seriously consider. In soccer, even the holding champions have to go through the rigmarole of qualification.
If cricket truly wants to position itself as a global game, as the ICC so often insists it does, its elitism needs to stop. In the context of Tests, it will take years, if it ever even happens. In the shorter formats, though, the ideal platform exists to ensure the game grows. DM
Photo: Spectators cheers behind England’s Alastair Cook during the fifth Ashes cricket test against Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground January 5, 2011. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne