Champions Trophy for a global game

champions trophy

The 2013 Champions Trophy has been a success. High quality cricket played by the world’s best players in front of fans of all eight of the participating nations. Even the soggy day of the final was redeemed by a dramatic match won by the more courageous team. This, we have read and heard – and you and I may have thought or said – is what the World Cup should be like.

And the whispers (actually, tweets) from those in the know is that the ICC may not liquidate the Champions Trophy after all. Something to be pleased about? A common-sense decision? Maybe, but maybe not.

The most appealing feature of this tournament was that it was played by eight well-matched sides, where the result of very nearly every match mattered. A four-yearly, or even biannual, repeat would be very welcome. But how likely is it that cricket will continue to have eight international teams so closely clustered in ability? History suggests not. For much of the last generation, there have been half-a-dozen or so teams of a fairly even standard and one other – Australia – way out ahead. Eight happened to be the perfect number for a short, sharp tournament in 2013, but I suspect, with the diverging (financial) fortunes of the cricketing nations, a competition of the same size in the future will have a few makeweights and so a loss in intensity.

The tournament was played in cricket grounds that hummed with spectators, rather than echoing to the shouts of the players, as has happened at other ICC events when the home nation is not in action. This is another aspect of the 2013 Champions Trophy that it would be highly desirable to replicate. But it is a product of Britain’s multi-cultural and densely located population, which other cricketing nations don’t offer. A top level sports tournament for international teams needs to be rotated around the major nations so home advantage isn’t monopolised, the teams are tested in differing environments and the opportunities to earn revenues for national associations are shared.

So, in terms of two of its most attractive features, the 2013 Champions Trophy may be better appreciated as a one-off, rather than the formula for a sure-fire, repeatable winner.

Other than the misplaced optimism that the Champions Trophy could provide the model for ICC tournaments, the other aspect of this discussion that struck me was the inconsistency with other, earlier comment on international cricket competitions.

Two years ago we heard and read – and you and I probably thought or said – that the ICC’s decision to reduce the number of associate members playing in the World Cup was unfair to those emerging cricket nations and would hinder their development into full members of the international cricket circuit. The critics’ consensus was that the ICC should keep its competitions open, not allow them to be closed-shops for the established nations.

And amongst the very many of us taking the side of Ireland, Afghanistan and other aspiring cricket nations, I’m sure some of us were complaining just a few weeks earlier that too many games in the group stages of the World Cup were one-sided. We want tight competition and we want encouragement to the weaker nations who cannot yet sustain that competition and so we want to keep international tournaments the preserve of the strongest. There are some critics and commentators who have stayed consistently on one side of this argument, but many have flip-flopped between the two positions. I know I have drifted.

For sensible cricket folk to take a series of such logically inconsistent positions suggests there is something else going on; a deeper uncertainty that we cannot resolve but allows us to advocate strongly heading north and then a short while later insist on having east to our left-hand side.

I speculate that the issue that pulls us strongly in varying directions is the game’s global ambition. Should cricket try, or is it even sensible to attempt, to expand its international playing base?

The ICC’s statement of strategic direction suggests an expansionist agenda, but with a clear acknowledgement of standards:

Strategic Direction

A bigger, better, global game targeting more players, more fans, more competitive teams.

Our long-term success will be judged on growth in participation and public interest and the competitiveness of teams participating in men’s and women’s international cricket.

Motivating that strategy may simply be the business commonplace that an enterprise not expanding is managing decline. Is there perhaps a moral dimension – a cricket crusade? In the ICC’s vision for success, it is aiming for a situation where, “cricket will captivate and inspire people of every age, gender, background and ability while building bridges between continents, countries and communities.”

It seems right to want to share our great sport with others, but let’s go no further than this expression of altruism. Because the next stop on this line is that cricket is a civilizing force for good. That’s the cricket of the racist British Empire, apartheid South Africa, caste-ridden India, aboriginal-oppressing Australia, civil war infested Asian Sub-Continent, etc.

Part of me thinks that cricket has enough to do tending its roots in its traditional soils, whether that’s fighting for its place in the leisure saturated industrialised countries or ensuring its popularity translates into more players and more consumers in the developing countries of cricket-playing Asia.

And then I spend my time consuming cricket works by writers and broadcasters in the USA and Czech Republic; I am moved by the story of the Afghan national team and I want Irish players to have the pride of playing for Ireland, not hopping across to England. These fans and players deserve top level cricket where they are, not merely rendered on their screens digitally.

Then back I swing again. New Zealand cricket cannot afford its players to have first class games acclimatizing ahead of a Test series in India. The West Indies and Sri Lanka shelve tests to accommodate ODIs which will earn more revenue. Bangladesh and Zimbabwe have set up shop in a de facto second division. What sort of elite world of international cricket would we be welcoming Ireland, Afghanistan and the USA into?

I cannot decide what shape I want future international cricket tournaments to take. I do recognise, however, that the format selected needs to be consistent with the game’s global ambition.

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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

6 responses to “Champions Trophy for a global game”

  1. Gareth says :

    The expansion of the game is a particularly thorny issue. The hegemony of first England and now India seems to be against that ideal with those boards more interested in preserving the status quo than anything else.

    The problem lies squarely with the ICC who, unlike FIFA (with it’s admitedly many faults), are at the behest of the leading nations and not leading the game. Football is a good example in the sense that it shows how relative minnows can improve over time. Not long ago many smaller nations were ridiculed at the World Cup but their inclusion has led to a huge improvement in Asian and African sides that will I have no doubt eventually lead to one from those continent lifting the trophy.

    The truth is that there needs to be restructuring of the Future Tour Program to allow the lower ranked Test sides to play some matches against the best associated in ODI’s and T20s. The ICC would be well advised to foot the bill for these matches and host several at a time (tri-series etc) with the leading nations accepting that to promote the game they have to pay a little more in to the ICC to afford this.

    • chrisps says :

      Gareth, I can see how your suggestion would build the strength and experience of the better associate nations. But could the ICC (even if it wasn’t controlled by one of the established nations) ever choose to invest significant money in ‘fringe’ nations when it has seven full members who cannot run their national teams at a profit? I guess, as you indicate, expansion needs leadership and the ICC isn’t providing it. Many thanks. Chris

  2. Russ says :

    Chris, an excellent post.I’d make two points (albeit, because I tend to ramble, two very long points).

    Firstly, for ICC members this question largely comes down to finance, and cricket’s financial structures are broken. (It is worth reading a proper sports economist, Stefan Szymanski on this). I recently posted on some of the financial issues while addressing test tiers. But essentially: only three markets make any money, and cricket’s schedule is shoe-horned to distribute as many matches as possible against those three markets; those same three teams are the only ones who can afford their own players at market rates; the future of professional cricket is probably driven by professionals playing domestic T20 competitions in those three markets; my hope is they don’t kill test cricket in the shift to that model. But as long as we expect small (and poor) national organisations to pay “their” cricketers then the financial model will remain broken and inefficient, and the competition likewise.

    Secondly, there are four factors at play here: finance, content, competitiveness, and meaning.

    Finance: this isn’t that complicated. The ICC gets more money the more they show their big markets. People, predominately, watch their national team. Good tournament or bad, close match or not, that’s what draws the tv audience. The ICC has gone to a 10 team, 48 game world cup just to get 9 Indian games in. In the long run, creating bad competitions to draw more of a single market is undoubtedly a self-defeating strategy, but we don’t know how long the long-run is. Unlike FIFA, there is no great benefit in expanding a tournament to ensure certain markets qualify.

    Content: it has become a truism to argue that less is more for cricket. I don’t agree. I love the intensity of more, and the problem with a lot of cricket competitions is not the quantity of games but the sparseness of them. Playing one game a day only works if you can guarantee a close, meaningful match – a final say – but Wimbledon (to use a current example) is interesting on the opening days, despite all the mismatches, because it plays 32 games a day in each draw. The FIFA WC plays 3 per day through the group stages; other sports are similar. In a world, multiple channels, live-streaming and social networks we ought to be able to create a festival of early round matches that generate a lot of content even if only half of it is interesting.

    Competitiveness is a funny measure. For starters it is hard to predict, but more importantly, it is relative. We fail small nations by inviting them to the WC and having them play mostly the big teams. Since 1970 the FIFA WC has had seven finalists. Australia is a footballing minnow, against those teams in WC competition they have 3 losses, no goals, 7 conceded. But they’ve played 4 other close matches against other relative minnows. Teams outside the top-10 rugby nations have a worse W/L record against those inside than cricket’s non-test teams do, but they play – and succeed with a 20 team world cup.

    Meaning I have tried to analyse before. The Champions Trophy works because the groups are small, a team can’t afford to lose or they miss the next stage. But 1) you can construct that scenario with a world cup of any size. The 2007 WC showed that in it’s 16 team group stage, where two favourites missed out. It’s failue was the interminable round-robin that followed. If it had followed the Champions Trophy model, 8 teams in 2 groups, it would have been great. And 2) You can incentivise winning a group to ensure the big teams have a challenge. My preferred format for a WC is 20 teams, 4 groups of 5, top-team goes direct to quarter-final, second and third to a play-off round. It makes the group games meaningful because the winner avoids a potential banana-skin, but also, the 12 so-called minnows can aim at third place, and the chance to progress. For them, qualifying that one extra step is meaningful, and it never hurts to remember that (for example, Nepal’s cricketers got a parade for qualifying for the WC qualifiers last month).

    To conclude, these factors aren’t always at cross-purposes. You can have meaning and competitiveness and content and expand the global game. And you can have a small world cup that lasts forever playing one round-robin match a day where teams can lose multiple times and still make the semi-finals. For purely financial reasons the ICC is moving to the latter in 2019, but unlike most journalists, I am under no illusions it will be better.

    • chrisps says :

      Russ, you are very welcome to ramble (as you call it) here anytime. It is very generous of you to make such a comprehensive and detailed comment.
      Looking at your points and how they inform the question of expansion (at the highest international level), I’m not sure there is a financial argument in favour of it. None of Ireland, Afghanistan, Kenya or Netherlands will provide a fourth market that makes money. More national teams in top level competition could help ‘content’ and cleverly designed tournaments will preserve ‘competitiveness’ and ‘meaning’. But we’re stuck with the question of finance. You seem to suggest that there is a solution we should look at which is not players being paid by their national boards. Is this franchise cricket, or some form of international central contract? Perhaps China and its riches is the goal of expansion?
      I enjoyed your aside about Nepal, too.
      Thanks again, I very much appreciate your contributions.
      Chris

      • Russ says :

        Chris, I sort of agree, there probably isn’t a financial justification for expansion, but by that measure, a diminishment of cricket to just the big-three and maybe South Africa is probably justified. We are already seeing that and it hurts cricket (I agree with Jarrod Kimber on this). The reality is the other six nations are either population challenged, poor or both; Canada, Netherlands, Scotland, Ireland, Afghanistan, and by sheer economic weight, China, Japan, Germany, Italy, Nigeria and the USA are all potentially valid smaller markets (and competitive teams – but think New Zealand, not England, India or Australia. There is a long-tail; the 103 smaller members being perhaps the same size as the 3 big ones.

        Franchise cricket has a bad name in England, although if the opposing model is representative cricket, County cricket has been franchise cricket for many many years. It’s only failure is to maintain a market presence in many small places; football avoids this by promotion/relegation and a dynamic market; US sports by allowing owners to pick up and shift a team to bigger markets (in part anyway).

        But in short, franchise cricket is what I had in mind, yes. I don’t see an international central contract working. What I’d expect, and as we’ve seen in football, and rugby, and US sports – cricket is very unusual in this sense – is for players to play domestic cricket in the bigger markets, and have their income derive from domestic contracts. That suits smaller teams who can professionalise their players without needing to pay them their market worth: Cote d’Ivoire cannot afford their football team, but they still have them for the world cup. I’d like to see domestic T20 cricket played in a window (a single window for each hemispheric summer, the IPL at the same time as the BBL and the BPL); and international cricket played in competitions whose aim is not to make money for national boards. Optimally, the ICC would obtain most international income, and use it to develop the game. they do a good job with what they have, but the full members are always pushing back against it.

  3. Gerald Dunn says :

    Groups of 4 leading to knockout rounds could suit 16 as well as 8 teams. World cup bloated, encoraging the mediocrity of teams like england ever since 92 – turn up, avoid losing twice to minnows and go through to more round robins. Even if minnows pull off one shock, unlikely to be rewarded. It has been great to feel obliged to watch many of the ct13 matches as a neutral – all after the first round of games meant qualification or exit.

    Surely the marketing dept can work out a way to
    better monetise a more competitive and compelling product

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