September 20, 2013

World Cup qualification could give ODIs context

Bilaterals tacked on to the end of a Test series, or hastily arranged triangulars, could gather meaning if teams had something bigger to fight for. But will cricket's major teams ever agree to such a proposition?

Bad weather and poor scheduling were just two reasons why the England-Australia ODIs lacked excitement © Getty Images

A couple of my recent sports viewing experiences offer an interesting contrast.

On September 10, USA played Mexico in a football World Cup qualifier at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. The game was telecast live, the stadium was packed with noisy, exultant spectators. I watched with great interest for a great deal rode on the result of this game. A win for USA along with a loss or draw for Panama would send USA to the 2014 World Cup. USA won 2-0 on the back of goals by Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan.

Between September 6 and September 16, England and Australia played five one-day internationals. I watched approximately five overs of the fifth; my baby daughter was in a slightly cranky mood, and she needed the distraction. Two of the scheduled games had already been washed out. The spectators didn't seem too excited. They were bundled up in autumn and winter gear. It all felt a little unseasonal. The Ashes and the summer had ended a while ago.

I am a cricket fan first and foremost, so an England-Australia encounter should be on top of my watching list. But it wasn't. I enjoy soccer too, but I'm not as devoted a fan. I pay the most attention to the Champions League, the World Cup and the occasional EPL game. But in this pair of encounters, cricket didn't stand a chance.

However, I suspect if the England-Australia one-day internationals had the status of qualifiers for the next World Cup, I would have paid much more attention. And I wonder yet again why such a commonsensical approach to cricket's World Cup is not taken. (I'm leaving aside for now the wisdom of staging such a long series of games after the Ashes had ended.)

A qualification system, of course, requires a four-year calendar featuring home-and-away series between the ICC Full Members. The bottom two, or perhaps three, Full Members at the end of this period could then play in a qualification tournament featuring the top-ranked Associates, who would have made it thus far from their own qualifying system. This process would make individual one-day internationals more meaningful, as every game played anywhere in the world would contribute points for the World Cup; no one-day international, between any pair of countries, would be lacking in context. Even games in so-called dead rubbers would be important as far as the final points tally was concerned.

If triangular tournaments were to be persisted with, they could have their games count toward qualification as well; the sponsors of such cups would be delighted, I'm sure, to have the constituent games regarded as so important. The holders of television rights would be quite enthusiastic about such a proposal. For instance, it would ensure that the strongest squads would always be picked. (Of course, in cases where a country had already qualified, some team adjustments would be expected.)

Such a qualifying tournament, one that pitched the best Associates against the worst Full Members would not only ensure that the "right" teams were in the World Cup, it would also ensure that cricket's one-day championship was really a genuine "World" Cup and not a glorified invitational tournament. (I am often reminded of this by my American and European friends.) This qualification system seems like such an exciting prospect, promising at one stroke to clean up the scheduling calendar, make "meaningless" matches meaningful, and even, I think, boost television ratings and crowd attendance. Why isn't it already in place?

The problem, unsurprisingly, lies in the financial and political realities of the ICC. Why would its Full Members ever agree to a structure that could result in any of them missing out on the cup and its associated revenues? These have, thus far, landed in their laps all too easily, given their one-way qualification for Full Member status. In a qualifying competition Full Members could be beaten by leading Associates and miss out on the World Cup. Ireland did, after all, beat England in the 2011 World Cup, and could also have beaten Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and West Indies. Back in 1979, Sri Lanka beat India.

And then, of course, there is the 800-pound gorilla in the room: a World Cup without India. This is extremely unlikely given an extended qualification process but it will still worry the ICC mightily. It is hard to imagine it organising a qualification that risks the massive Indian market. Furthermore, Full Members, especially the big four - England, South Africa, India, Australia - are likely to be more interested in organising one-day games against each other than in playing qualifying games.

This strikes me as a rather depressing state of affairs, especially because I know that I am not the first one to suggest a qualifying tournament and have these objections raised. But neither does it seem to me that the world of cricket possesses the means by which to rectify this situation. It seems destined to let matters proceed to a point of no return: diminishing interest in one-dayers, declining television ratings and rights monies, smaller crowds in attendance, an enrichment of the haves and an impoverishment of the have-nots.

Could things really get that bad in cricket? I don't know. I'm not a prophet even though I sometimes pretend to be one. But the game's recent history - including the ongoing spat between the BCCI and Cricket South Africa - seems to provide some evidence in favour of this outcome.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here