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At the Cricket World Cup, no place for small teams with big hearts

West Indies’ Christopher Gayle with Afghanistan batsman Mohammad Shahzad during their cricket world cup qualifier match at Harare Sports Club on 25 March. ICC Associate Members Afghanistan and Ireland have been rewarded with Full Member status, and will play their first tests this summer. Photo: APPremium
West Indies’ Christopher Gayle with Afghanistan batsman Mohammad Shahzad during their cricket world cup qualifier match at Harare Sports Club on 25 March. ICC Associate Members Afghanistan and Ireland have been rewarded with Full Member status, and will play their first tests this summer. Photo: AP

At a time when other sports like football and rugby are looking for ways to expand their World Cup, cricket is keen on shrinking it

The Zimbabwean all-rounder Sikandar Raza was adjudged Man-of-the-Series in the recently concluded qualifying tournament for the 2019 Cricket World Cup. After the final at the Harare Sports Club, he accepted the trophy in a casual t-shirt, though, on that Sunday evening, he would have happily traded the silverware for the chance to be wearing the bright red national team kit.

Raza’s heartfelt speech

The final was played between West Indies and Afghanistan, the two teams that will join the eight automatically qualified teams for the World Cup in England next summer. The International Cricket Council’s (ICC’s) decision to reduce the number of competing teams to 10 (from 16 in 2011 and 14 in 2015) has caused a lot of heartburn among the lesser cricket playing nations that will be missing out. These include Zimbabwe, Scotland, Ireland, The Netherlands and the UAE.

The implication of this decision was brought into sharp relief by Raza, in body language and words, as he spoke to commentator Pommie Mbangwa just after receiving his award—pyrrhic victory if ever there was one—from a presentation party that included ICC CEO Dave Richardson. When asked by Mbangwa whether he was “happy" with the award, he responded with a disconsolate “Certainly not happy at all" before speaking straight from the heart about the new format’s cruelty.

“When I started playing cricket, I thought it was to unite countries, players of different background coming together to play this beautiful sport. Unfortunately, you’ll see that’s not going to happen in next year’s World Cup. It’s certainly quite a tough pill to swallow."

He went to on say that his trophy would serve as “a reminder of the hard work" of all the other teams that played the qualifiers but couldn’t make it to the World Cup. Indeed, the qualifying tournament was full of close games and surprising results—a great advertisement for the increasing level of competitiveness in the lower echelons of the sport.

Cricket’s class system

The ICC has a two-tier system of membership: Full Members (test playing nations) and Associates. A majority of the 16 executive directors of the ICC are representatives of the Full Member national boards. There are only 3 representatives for the 92 Associate Members. That explains why conflict of interest is not incidental to ICC matters, but actually built into its structure. Writing in the The Guardian in February 2017, Tim Wigmore (who, as Cricket Monthly’s editor Rahul Bhattacharya points out, has possibly done more than any other journalist to highlight the contemporary challenges and achievements of the Associate nations) highlighted the “inequities" caused by this “split personality" of the ICC.

The ICC’s main revenue source is the sale of television and broadcast rights for the global tournaments it organizes, of which the 50-over World Cup is the principal money spinner. After adjusting for costs, the revenue is distributed among the members. For the 2007-15 period, broadcast revenue was $1.2 billion, of which the Associates and Affiliates (a category now collapsed into Associates) received $125 million in all. Each of the Full Members received $52.5 million. 

Where there is wealth accumulation, there must be a question of distribution. And where there is a question of distribution, there is—inevitably—a question of proportionality. The Full Member group has its own class system. India, England and Australia are the Big Three—the countries that deliver the most bang for the broadcasters’ buck.

BCCI and the 2015-23 broadcasting revenue cycle

More than 80% of total revenue in the 2007-15 cycle (which lasted until the 2015 World Cup) was said to have arisen from cricket involving India. The experience of negotiating IPL broadcasting rights (the first season was in 2008) would no doubt have equipped and emboldened the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to fight for a bigger share from the ICC revenue pie. Digital had emerged as a revenue stream in its own right.

So, this was the context when the rights for the 2015-23 cycle came up for negotiation in 2014. The BCCI pushed for a distributed share commensurate to the estimated revenue its TV contracts would generate for the ICC, and was supported by the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and Cricket Australia (CA). The 2015-23 rights were awarded to Star Sports for $2.7 billion, more than double the amount from the previous cycle.

For Wisden in April 2014, Giles Clarke (then chairman of the ECB and now its president), wrote that the BCCI had made it clear that it “would be uncomfortable about continuing in the ICC" if its concerns regarding revenue allocation were not recognized. He went on to note that “purely from a commercial perspective, it was essential that cricket’s position in India remain pre-eminent." What he actually meant was that from purely from a commercial perspective, it was essential that India’s position in cricket remain pre-eminent. A model was proposed by the Big Three, and principally agreed upon by the members.

Under this model, the BCCI stood to receive $450 million—a third of the ICC’s total distribution. However, this began to be thought of as excessive even by the ICC executive board, including Mr Clarke who had justified the idea in the first place. In early 2017, the ICC sought to undo the 2014 Big Three arrangement as part of a new reforms package. The BCCI walked into these meetings with a demand of $570 million. In April, by a vote of 9-1, the members voted for a model that would have the BCCI take home $293 million (which was still double of the next big earner England’s $143 million). This revised model would have to be ratified at the ICC’s Annual Conference in June 2017.

The BCCI’s response to the April vote was to threaten to pull out of the summer’s ICC Champions Trophy ODI tournament and lengthen the duration of the IPL. The tactic worked. In the June vote, the BCCI ended up walking away with $405 million. To make up the BCCI’s increase, the shares of eight Full Member boards were reduced by $4 million each. The total reduction—$32 million—was still less than the $40 million reduction from the Associate share. 

The 10-team World Cup

In March 2015, during the World Cup in Australia, Dave Richardson told the media that the agreement with the broadcasters was for a 10-team World Cup in 2019. At the time, he had said that the “debate will still be had as to have 10 teams or increase it". A couple of months later, in June 2015, it became clear that it will remain a 10-team tournament when the format was not discussed at the ICC Annual Conference in Barbados.

It is no secret as to which boards would have pushed for the idea of a 10-team tournament, and for what reasons. In this format, each of the teams will play all the others in the group stages, with the top four going into the semi-finals. Therefore, India is assured matches with Australia, South Africa, England and, most importantly, Pakistan.

In the hectic negotiations with the ICC in the first half of 2017, BCCI would have deployed a number of arguments to justify its demand. It would not be unreasonable to assume that the India-specific broadcasting gains to be made during the 2019 World Cup would have featured prominently among them.

Minnows no longer

A minnow is a small freshwater fish of the carp family. It is often used as bait. It was also the word commonly used to describe the Associate nations until not very long ago. Barring the occasional upset, World Cup games involving the “minnows" were heavily one-sided. It was thought that they needlessly stretched the group stages of the World Cup.

Kenya reached the semi-final in 2003, and the audiences seemed to have enjoyed the novelty. Besides, the other semi-finalists were India, Sri Lanka and Australia. Nothing to worry there—the “markets" that mattered were still clued-in. 

The unthinkable happened at the Caribbean World Cup in 2007. Bangladesh and Ireland came along and knocked out India and Pakistan respectively. What would have been a much-vaunted India-Pakistan fixture in the next stage of the tournament was now a clash between two minnows.

Broadcasters and advertisers were appalled—their party had been spoilt. For the first time since the sub-continental World Cup of 1996, the event that definitively marked the transfer of cricket’s power centre from England-Australia to South Asia, the two lucrative “markets" of India and Pakistan had checked-out of the tournament even before it got to its business end.

Since 2007, there has been a marked drop in the use of the word “minnow" to describe the smaller teams. The rapid strides that they have made in the last 8-10 years can fairly be attributed to the work done by the ICC’s High Performance Programme and Regional Development bodies.

Bangladesh were everyone’s favourite whipping boys for a long time after acquiring Test status back in 2000, but their recent strong showing in all formats of the game—especially Tests—has vindicated the belief that results will start showing eventually. Afghanistan and Ireland have demonstrated a spark in limited-overs cricket. They have been rewarded with Full Member status, and will play their first tests this summer.

In the Zimbabwe tournament, Scotland came agonisingly close to qualification in their game against the West Indies. They lost by 5 runs on the Duckworth Lewis system—things might have different if a single dubious LBW decision had not gone against them. The qualifier did not have a reserve day for games affected by rain, nor did it offer the option to review decisions of the on-field umpires. This was presumably done to save costs, which means more money to count for the suits in Mumbai, London and Melbourne.

Scotland coach Grant Bradburn, in a note reflecting on the tournament, noted that “every coach (Full members included) has seen dramatic improvement in performance from the Associate nations" and “there are no easy beats among the eight leading associates".

Bradburn also requested the ICC to increase competitive playing time for Associates. There is only so far they can go with just training. In the last four years, Scotland has lost 10 key players, including former captain Preston Mommsen, to other careers simply because cricket as a profession had not proved to be financially sustainable. Mommsen now works full-time in property investment.

Sport’s shrinking World Cup

At a time when other sports like football and rugby are looking for ways to expand their World Cup, cricket is keen on shrinking it. A World Cup remains the ultimate prize in sport, and the experience is invaluable for smaller teams, irrespective of the result. Participation raises the profile of the sport by attracting new players. Corporate sponsors begin to take notice, and there is also the possibility of broadcasting deals.

In the Associate world, the stakes are higher. There is much more to lose and gain than what appears on the face of it. Speaking to Wigmore for a Cricket Monthly profile (published in March 2016), Mommsen said, “It’s a cut-throat process qualifying for a World Cup. There’s huge pressure and so much riding on it that people don’t quite comprehend—the financial security of the organization, the exposure, inspiring the younger generation by seeing Scotland shirts on Sky Sports. Cricket in the whole country came down to that."

And this is to say nothing of the fans in the nations that missed out. Most of these countries are passionate ones—the Zimbabwe qualifier saw packed stadiums. Cricket writers wouldn’t stop gushing about the jolly Irish contingent that travelled to the West Indies for the 2007 World Cup. Bonnie Scots would have crossed the River Tweed in hordes to sing songs in Lord’s and Headingley, had their country made it to next summer’s tournament. Zimbabwe’s 15 million—whose dreams Raza acknowledged crushing in that emotional speech—would have had something to cheer for in a bleak political environment. 

After Raza’s speech, Wigmore tweeted that there has never been a greater chasm between the fantastic work done by the development team of the ICC and the “short-termism and greed of the biggest Test nations". To put the world back into the World Cup, the ICC needs to be less of a “split personality". For that, the decision-makers on the executive board will have to take their eyes off the broadcasting contracts for a second.

If the ICC decides that it is really only an old boy’s club, with no responsibility towards the greater global growth of the game, then some of its decisions might be easier for the smaller teams to accept—they will limit their ambition and keep their wings firmly tucked in. However, steady progress over the last few years, largely driven by the ICC’s development programme and funds, has given them the audacity to hope.

On its website, the ICC says that “it has a long term ambition to become the world’s favourite sport" and that the “four-year strategy that will take [it] through to 2019 is the first step on the journey". By keeping the small nations with big hearts out of the most high-profile international cricket tournament, the ICC has indeed taken a few steps. Only, they are backward ones. 

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