Champions Trophy for a global game
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:
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.