Champions Trophy October 6, 2009

A spectator sport without spectators

South Africans, we are told, are sports crazy

Ricky Ponting and Daniel Vettori both declared this year's Champions Trophy a success. A shorter, sharper format meant that most matches were important. The cricket has been gripping enough, though unspectacular. The underdogs met the favourites in the final, and India met Pakistan in a game that was beamed around the world. Enough ingredients, you might argue, to please the ICC? Indeed, the ICC will profess itself to be delighted with the competition. Statistics and soundbites will be used to support their case.

But the ICC should be alarmed by this tournament. What is a spectator sport without spectators? The shoddy turnouts in South Africa are only partly mitigated by the unexpectedly early exit of the hosts. South Africans, we are told, are sports crazy. Well, they weren't mad for the Champions Trophy. It is the second major 50-over tournament to be poorly supported in quick succession.

Cricket's administrators must act. The sport is bankrolled by lucrative television deals. But half the thrill of watching a match on television is that you share the excitement of a live stadium event. A full stadium makes a dull match a thriller. A mostly empty stadium makes a thrilling match dull. Inevitably, cricket will lose the battle for television and internet eyeballs if the spectacle on our screens carries the thrill of a funeral procession. Once that happens, bang goes the business model.

International cricket that is dependent on full houses in only three countries--Australia, England, and India--is unsustainable in the long term. Short-term revenue opportunities with a pandemic of Twenty20 tournaments and gross overexposure of the big teams to each other is taking the fascination and sense of occasion out of cricket. If Liverpool played Manchester United in seven consecutive matches it would become less meaningful even for the most hardened fan. Why is cricket any different?

We all understand the complexities of the Future Tours Programme, and sympathise with those charged with organising it. But the current international schedule is taking the fascination and meaning out of contests, and something needs to be done. I'd argue for more central regulation of the cricket calendar, fewer ad-hoc events and tournaments, and better integration between the formats. More Twenty20, for example, has to mean less of something else. Currently, every new initiative is additive. Less is more. Each match has to matter.

These challenges cannot be insoluble but the ICC has never been convincing in its ability to master them. Many of the representatives on the ICC board are highly accomplished but the political nature of the organisation makes resolution difficult. That political posturing needs to be put aside urgently. International cricket is on the slippery slope to irrelevance. For the past decade, revenue has mattered more than the rude health of the game. Priorities must change.

This Champions Trophy is another serious warning to cricket's adminstrators and power brokers. Adapt or die is the message in 2009, the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. But are those in control of the evolution of cricket sufficiently selfless and far sighted to win this survival of the fittest?

Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here

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