Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Welcome to the Cartel? No, not really!

Two undeniable conclusions can be drawn from this year's cricket world cup in India. The 50 over version of the game is alive and kicking and still has a future, despite the success of the 20/20 format. Secondly, the tournament lasted far too long.

In an age where cricket authorities need to balance the development of the game with the increasing demands upon teams and players in an overcrowded calendar, the leaders of the world game have come up with an ingenious solution - forget all about development and ban the developing nations from the next world cup. You have to give them credit. They certainly were not half hearted in tackling the issue of too long a tournament. In fact, they have been so brave that they have decided to sacrifice the future development of the game just to meet this challenge. What other sport would be brave enough to follow up a successful world cup by voting to kill the tournament in the weeks that followed? Without an opportunity for developing nations to qualify then the next tournament will not be a world cup - it will be a jolly get together of the world's so called elite.

The lifeblood for the growth of any sport is a combination of the opportunity for players from any part of the world to play the game at its highest level, and for fans from any part of the world to see their team have the opportunity to develop and achieve success. In a single stroke the cricket authorities are taking away both of these opportunities from players and fans. It is all very well to say that qualification for the tournament will be re-introduced for the 2019 tournament, but what damage will have been done by then? Eight years is literally a sporting lifetime. By 2019 the sport could have lost an entire generation of both players and fans.

Throughout world sport, all but the money-driven North American franchise system have recognised the importance of creating opportunities for players and teams to progress through the structure of the game. Football and Rugby Union have both introduced a pyramid system to allow any team to rise and join the elite of the game. Rugby League is following this example soon, as are many other sports. Yet cricket has chosen to take a backward step.

There is yet hope though. According to the BBC, ICC president Sharad Pawar has asked the executive board to reconsider the decision at the Annual Conference in Hong Kong in June. Let us hope for the sake of the game that common sense prevails and the decision is reversed.

Nobody is disputing the need to tackle the issue of an overcrowded calendar. Likewise, nobody is doubting that the last two cricket world cups have lasted far too long. Banning the associate nations from taking part and limiting the tournament to full test playing nations is not the answer though. Any sport that is serious about expanding its frontiers, and being regarded as a true world game, should be thinking of increasing the opportunities for developing nations to participate in a world competition - certainly not eliminating them. The game needs the developing nations if it is to grow.

It is one thing to criticise but another to offer alternatives. The crazy thing about this situation is that a number of alternatives already exist. The issue in this case is not one of a lack of viable alternatives. As with so many other situations in sport, the issue is one of money. Test playing nations generate the most income when they are playing other full test playing nations. However, sometimes sport needs to look beyond short-term gain and consider the wider implications for the good of the sport.

The first, and most obvious, solution is to reduce the length of one day series when teams tour another country. Seven game series are just too long. They may create a cash cow for the cricket authorities, but they do nothing for the spectacle of the game. A three game series is more than enough to generate public interest. Reducing the number of one day games and exhibition matches would go a long way to easing fixture congestion and player fatigue.

In terms of the world cup, there is no reason why organisers could not arrange to have eight seeded teams who would take part in a knockout competition, or even a three team round robin group, while at the same time increasing the number of associate nations allowed to compete. The competition would still be shorter, but it would be opened up to a much wider audience. Giving associate nations the chance to take on the world's best is the only way to secure the long-term success of the game. This format would allow anything from eight associate teams upwards to compete at the world cup.

The problem with that format is that it reduces the number of games that the top teams are guaranteed to play. The format as I have suggested it would allow a top team to be on their way home after only one or two games if they were unsuccessful. Well you know what? That is the price of failure. Come back in four years and try again - if you qualify!

The victims may not have enjoyed it, but seeing England struggle against the Netherlands, or both England and Pakistan losing to Ireland in the last two world cups is good for the game. The question that the executive board needs to address when it reconsiders this issue is very simple. Does it want to make a decision that is good for cricket, or one that is good for protecting the cartel that currently exists?

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