April 12, 2016

Why the World T20 should be played every two years

The numbers bear out that there is plenty of interest in the tournament at its current frequency. Cricket has plenty to gain from keeping it that way

The viewership for the 2016 World T20 indicates how popular the tournament is © IDI/Getty Images

In the heady moments after Carlos Brathwaite's assault sealed the 2016 World T20, Darren Sammy admitted, "I don't know when I'm going to be playing with these guys again." He was not only referring to his disagreements with the West Indies Cricket Board but the long wait until the next World T20, in November 2020. And as bilateral T20I cricket is both rare and utterly devoid of context, it is hard to see what Chris Gayle and Co stand to gain playing the occasional T20I where so little is at stake.

The 55-month gap until the next World T20 seems baffling. Despite the shambolic organisation, the 2016 edition was widely acclaimed as the best yet, a snappy tournament in keeping with the best traditions of T20 cricket.

The games were mostly enthralling, and by every metric, the tournament was astoundingly popular. From the start of the Super 10s, crowds were generally excellent. Tweets with #World T20 were viewed 5.75 billion times around the world, four times the amount in the 50-over World Cup a year ago. It is estimated that there were 750 million views for online videos featuring match footage of the tournament, compared to 250 million during the 2015 World Cup, a considerably longer event. India's performance was a further boon: MS Dhoni's side reached the semi-finals, and most advertising inventory for the final had already been sold before India were eliminated.

Over 80 million Indians watched the semi-final with West Indies and India's matches against Australia and Pakistan on TV, according to the Broadcast Audience Research Council India, with many millions more watching online.

*While there are no comparable figures for the Indian audience between the 2016 WT20 and previous tournaments, data produced by the Broadcasters Audience Research Board in the UK reveals that viewing numbers in Britain were formidable compared to those for previous tournaments. In 2014, an average of just 255,000 watched the final, between India and Sri Lanka. In 2016, that figure was trumped by fixtures including India's game with Australia, watched by 603,000; South Africa against the West Indies (378,000); and even Afghanistan v West Indies (269,000). Interest in England matches was also strong: an average of over a million watched the final with West Indies, and 672,000 watched their semi-final too. Even some matches in the first stage received healthy viewing figures: an average of 182,000 watched Scotland's match with Afghanistan on a Tuesday afternoon, a greater number than watched either semi-final or England's humbling by Netherlands in 2014. And Ireland's match with Oman was watched by an average of 161,000 - 50,000 more than Australia's bilateral T20I with South Africa, which happened simultaneously on a different channel.

Two more World T20 competitions every eight-year cycle would therefore be worth about $500 million to the ICC, leaving, at a very conservative estimate, another $400 million to be awarded to ICC members over eight years after costs

Such numbers undermine the notion that holding the tournament every two years risks devaluing the World T20 through it being overplayed. Speaking after the tournament, Dave Richardson suggested another concern with maintaining a two-year cycle of the World T20. "If we keep pushing T20 and keep playing T20 events every two years, it'll effectively cannibalise the other two [ICC global events]". Yet although this was the sixth World T20 in under nine years, both the most recent 50-over World Cup tournament, last year, and Champions Trophy event, in 2013, were the most popular ever by all viewing metrics. Indeed, far from being damaged by the prevalence of World T20 tournaments, the last Champions Trophy was actually hugely successful: the viewing figures and interest from commercial partners were such that the ICC was persuaded to abandon the Test Championship, originally scheduled for 2017, and keep the Champions Trophy going.

This suggests another explanation for why the World T20 is now scheduled to take place over a four-year cycle. At an ICC meeting in 2013, as the distribution of events for the 2015-2023 rights cycle was being discussed, a representative from one of the Big Three teams made the point that some countries earned more from bilateral cricket than they did from the World T20. It was therefore in the interests of England, Australia and India to move the World T20 to every four years, creating more time for the countries to play bilateral fixtures, especially against each other. While this did not suit the other Full Members, much less the 95 Associate and Affiliate nations, the ICC restructuring of 2014 showed where the power in world cricket resided.

With signs of the Big Three's influence being eroded under the Shashank Manohar regime, reversing the decision of 2013, and moving the World T20 back to a two-year interval might yet be possible. The matter is believed to be under discussion at the ICC board meeting later this month, and some eminent Full Member representatives are in favour. "I would support the World T20 being played every two years as it is an excellent competition for the development of the game," says Haroon Lorgat, the chief executive of Cricket South Africa.

The ICC needs the World T20 to woo big markets like America and China © Rob Tringali/ESPN

There would be compelling logic behind the move. Most importantly, the cricketing case is formidable. The bilateral T20I has always been a curious entity, a token game here or there between under-strength or fatigued teams, tacked on to the end of long tours without a sense of purpose. Where T20Is have excelled - from Yuvraj Singh's six sixes to Misbah's scoop gone wrong, Shahid Afridi leading Pakistan to victory at Lord's, Mike Hussey's extraordinary heist, Netherlands' twin victories over England, Sangakkara's magnificence in Sri Lanka's victory in 2014, and the West Indies' two pulsating triumphs - it has been in the World T20.

As it becomes ever clearer that T20 cricket will be regarded, if it is not already, as the game's dominant form, international cricket surely cannot give up T20 to domestic leagues. By the time of the next World T20, five more editions of the IPL will have taken place. Should international cricket effectively abandon the game's most popular format for the rest of the decade, it would erode, once and for all, the notion of international cricket representing the primacy of the sport.

There is another dimension to the argument for the World T20 to be played every two years rather than every four. This is not concerned with the popularity of international cricket relative to the domestic game, but to do with the popularity of cricket relative to other sports.

Many in the ICC are preoccupied by the need for cricket to grow beyond the Test world - not merely to Afghanistan, Ireland and Nepal but also to countries that have never come close to the World Cup or the World T20, including China and, especially, the USA, a focus of the current ICC regime. This zeal for expansion within the ICC management is not high-minded idealism but simple pragmatism. Cricket's financial over-dependence on India is not merely undesirable, it leaves the sport vulnerable to a slight drop in interest in the sport there: even a 10% fall, say, in Indian viewing figures could be catastrophic, and such a decline is distinctly possible, given the recent growth of football and kabaddi.

Developing the sport in alternative nations is, at its core, a prudent insurance policy. The ICC has publicly declared a wish for the USA to apply to host a World T20 in the 2023-31 cycle, and more frequent World T20s would mean there are more events to divvy up, and the perceived risk of awarding one to an Associate is reduced.

Over 80 million Indians watched the semi-final with the West Indies and India's matches against Australia and Pakistan on TV, with many millions more watching online

The World T20, even with a less inclusive format than many would prefer, is the best vehicle for cricket's growth, allowing emerging nations to appear on the world stage in the format most likely to captivate new fans. World events, especially the World T20, are "the best chance to secure partnerships with top-tier firms looking for sponsorship exposure," says Tim Cutler, the chief executive of the Hong Kong Cricket Association. They represent the best way for Associates to generate more of their own income from governments and sponsors, to reduce their dependence upon the ICC, and, in time, for interest from local broadcasters to develop and give the ICC a return on their investment.

Moving the World T20 back to every two years would also be a financial boon for Associates and Full Members alike. It is estimated that each such event generates US$250-300 million in media-rights earnings alone, which is then divided up 75-25 between the Full Members and the Associates. Two more World T20 competitions every eight-year cycle would therefore be worth about $500 million to the ICC, leaving, at a very conservative estimate, another $400 million to be awarded to ICC members over eight years after costs. Even with the ICC's inequitable revenue-distribution formula, another $100 million would be opened up to the Associate and Affiliate world between 2015 and 2023: an increase by a third on the $299 million currently promised to non-Full Members.

The prospect of more frequent World T20 competitions would also help Associate cricketers see the sport as a more viable career option. "Beyond the obvious cricketing advantages of creating aspirational incentives for young players learning the game in emerging nations, it also provides the players themselves the chance to be discovered by overseas clubs," Cutler says. And ultimately Associate cricketers would be less inclined to retire prematurely with appearance on the world stage a more viable prospect: few Associate cricketers outside of the Ireland and Afghanistan teams genuinely think they will reach another global event this decade.

No sporting body in the world has displayed the same propensity for changing decisions as the ICC has done. A U-turn on the World T20, returning it to a two-year interval, would fit into a long trend. If Australia, England and India unite in supporting the notion, only one further obstacle would remain: Star Sports India and Star Sports Middle East, the ICC rights holders. Whether they would pay for additional World T20 tournaments in 2018 and 2022 is the most important question of all, though the huge Indian viewing figures during the World T20 make it a far more appealing prospect now than it was a month ago. Given the time pressures and the difficulty of the ICC's current TV rights contract, which explicitly says that there will be no other ICC events involving Full Members other than those already agreed, it might be too late for Sammy to lead a title defence in 2018; more likely is another World T20 tournament in 2022, following the 2020 World T20, and every two years thereafter.

For the new regimes in England and India claiming a break from the past, restoring the World T20 to every two years would amount to an easy PR win. And the notion of newly enlightened cricket administration could less easily be derided as a chimera.

08:16:54 GMT, April 13, 2016: *Figures in this paragraph were updated

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts

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