Johnny Douglas was a dour batsman and a medium-pace bowler who captained England to the Ashes in 1911-12. Three years earlier, he had won Olympic gold—though cover drives and yorkers had played no part in the accomplishment of that particular feat. Douglas ascended the podium for using his fists—a practice frowned upon in cricket, unless you’re a turbaned spinner riled by a mouthy Kerala fast bowler—as a middleweight.
By then, cricket had already ceased to be a part of the Olympic movement, following an ill-conceived attempt in Paris in 1900. When Holland and Belgium pulled out, it left only England and France in the fray. Even then, it’s doubtful if those that played knew what was at stake. In those days, the Olympic movement was nothing like the behemoth that it is now, and the games in Paris were part of the World’s Fair, or the Great Exposition. The “home” side was also nothing of the sort, with staff from the British embassy in Paris making up most of the numbers. As for England, the team that represented them was the Devon and Somerset Wanderers.
World Cup fever: Will this kind of audience frenzy ever be an Olympics spectacle? (Photo by: Rajesh Jantilal/AFP)
The two-day joust for gold wasn’t even played at a proper oval, but at the Velodrome de Vincennes near Paris, a cycling track that could seat in excess of 15,000. In 2004, Martin Williamson wrote in his article, The Ignorant Olympians, “The crowd consisted of a dozen or so bemused gendarmes. Potential spectators had hardly been encouraged by an explanation in La Vie Au Grand Air, the official publication of the Games, which described cricket as ‘this sport without colour to the uninitiated’.”
It was more than a century later, in December 2007, that cricket once again created the tiniest of ripples in the Olympic pool. That was when the sport was recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Following that, there was a spate of comments suggesting that a return to the Olympics fold wouldn’t be far away, but in reality, it remains far down the pecking order.
The International Cricket Council (ICC) made a bid to be included in the IOC’s plans at the start of the new millennium. Though it was prompted by a desire to give the game a truly global platform, there was also pragmatism at work. In most countries, a sport gets government funding only if it’s on the Olympics roster. Without that, it would be left to the ICC alone to plough funds into development.
Bowled over: India proved indomitable in the Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa in 2007. (Photo by: Alexander Joe/AFP)
Given how the IOC plans its events years in advance—host cities are announced seven years before the Games—it’s hard to see cricket getting a look before 2020. Even then, it faces stiff competition from other sports eager to be part of the pageant. With modern-day contingents so large, the IOC is already contemplating scaling down to just 26 sports, and it’s hard to see just how cricket would make the cut ahead of sports such as rugby and golf.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why cricket disappeared from the Olympics picture so quickly. It could be argued that till 1950, it was effectively a two-team sport, with England and Australia clashing biennially for the Ashes. South Africa was around, but didn’t manage to win a Test in England till 1951, when Dudley Nourse made a double century at Trent Bridge.
The West Indies had given the cricket world Learie Constantine and the matchless George Headley, but it was only after John Goddard’s team won by 326 runs at Lord’s in June 1950—inspired by those “two little pals of mine Ramadhin and Valentine”—that they began to get the respect they deserved. Pakistan’s breakthrough moment arrived at the Oval in 1954, while Indian cricket came of age at that venue 17 years later.
Even today, in an increasingly globalized world, cricket remains the preserve of a Commonwealth clique. Sri Lanka arrived on the big stage in the early 1980s, and has won many friends and admirers with its cavalier cricket since, but there has been no progress from others. Zimbabwe, which made it to the Super Six at the World Cup in 1999 and 2003, has been so weakened by a player exodus that it’s nothing more than a peripheral presence on the one-day calendar.
As for Kenya, semi-finalists at the World Cup in 2003, the road to glory has only seen roadblock after roadblock. A corrupt administration and lack of opportunities to play against the best sides has meant that Kenyan cricket, with its shallow talent pool, has probably missed the boat.
The nature of the Test game, and even the one-day one to a lesser extent, is such that it won’t easily excite or attract a foreign audience. In that regard, Twenty20 cricket, where the game lasts for about as long as a baseball contest, is the key to spreading the cricket gospel. The format is such that it also enhances the chances of an upset, as we saw in South Africa last year when a young Zimbabwe team overturned Australia.
The problem that cricket evangelists face is one of popularity. It may be a quasi-religion in parts of the subcontinent, but the sport barely merits a column inch in some of the other countries that sometimes feature in the World Cup. The Netherlands and the UAE are crazy about their football, while Canada tends to get excited about bit bruisers on ice-skates whacking a puck, and sometimes each other, with all their might. As for Ireland and Hong Kong, rugby union is very much the name of their game.
As far as creating a level playing field is concerned, cricket has much to learn from rugby. The game’s administrators quickly realized that 15-men-a-side was harder to propagate globally, with its scrums, rucks, mauls and knock-ons. The sevens game, with greater emphasis on speed and scoring, was a far more attractive package, and the first World Cup was held at Murrayfield in Scotland in 1993, more than a decade before cricket hosted its first T20 World Cup.
And, while cricket struggles to find even two sides that can challenge Australia’s dominance, the rugby net has thrown up far more global talent. Tiny Fiji were World Sevens champions in 1997 and 2005, with the diminutive Waisale Serevi universally recognized as the greatest sevens player of all time. Last year, Argentina reached the semi-finals of the World Cup proper, losing to South Africa, the eventual winners.
Even golf has cricket’s number in that regard. It may still be seen as an elitist sport by some, but has a far broader appeal. When Tiger Woods swings, the world watches, and with India producing a clutch of talented golfers in recent years, there certainly wouldn’t be any complaints if the sport was included in the list by 2016.
While it can be argued that cricket at the Olympics would attract far greater attention than judo or the modern pentathlon, the fact remains that the game hasn’t done enough to deserve the tag of a global sport. It’s only recently that cricket’s administrators have started to do something about the shameful neglect of the women’s game, and a combined Twenty20 World Cup next year would certainly be a step in the right direction.
Involvement in regional events and the Commonwealth Games would help too. Back in 1998, Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis were among the stars as South Africa won Commonwealth gold in Kuala Lumpur despite a typically feisty innings from Steve Waugh. Sachin Tendulkar, V.V.S. Laxman and Anil Kumble were part of the Indian side that lost to Australia, but for them and many other cricketing greats, Olympic gold and the playing of the national anthem will forever remain in the realms of fantasy.
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo.com. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org
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