September 23, 2015

Japan heroics show what cricket will miss

Japan's stunning victory over South Africa at the rugby World Cup is a timely reminder of everything that cricket's introspective rulers are turning their backs on
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Japan's triumph over South Africa at the rugby World Cup could not be repeated in cricket's version © Getty Images

To see Japanese and locals united in delirium on Brighton Pier last week as they celebrated Japan's victory over South Africa in the rugby World Cup was to be reminded of the best of sport. As 30,000 spectators cheered Japan on to defeating the Springboks, it provided a glorious start to the eighth World Cup in the sport.

To cricket fans the spectacle was simultaneously intoxicating and deeply grating. For as thrilling as Japan's victory was, it was a reminder of what is being lost from the cricket World Cup, when the next two events contract to ten teams.

To English cricket fans the contrast is particularly salient. Led by Giles Clarke, the ECB has been vehemently opposed to the notion of more than ten teams appearing in the World Cup, even arguing against a pre-qualifier, akin to the first stage of the World T20, being held in England just before the main event. Japan provided one of the most engrossing sights in all sport in 2015, but a side with their world ranking of 13th has scant chance of making cricket's showpiece events in 2019 and 2023.

Three months ago the ICC declared its ambition to establish cricket as the "world's favourite sport" by 2023 - admirable words, certainly, but hard to reconcile with the current will of those running the sport. Indeed, the pulsating early days of the rugby World Cup have shown that perhaps cricket should be anxious about holding onto second place.

Participation numbers for cricket received a huge boost in Ireland after the 2007 World Cup © Getty Images

Until 2015 Japan's World Cup history - played 24 but won only one, with a net points difference of minus 731 - made for sobering reading. In the pantheon of cricket Associates they were more Bermuda than Ireland.

It would have been easy to give up on Japan. Instead World Rugby redoubled its efforts, sending coaches and expertise to Japan, creating the Pacific Nations Cup in 2006 to give meaningful competition in the region and even awarding the 2019 World Cup to the country. The upshot, as coach Eddie Jones said after the toppling of the Springboks, is that the best young Japanese athletes will now be more inclined to choose rugby over competing sports.

An inclusive attitude to the World Cup is at the core of World Rugby's strategy for expanding the sport. Participation in the World Cup not only spurs children to take up the game - in Uruguay 25,000 more children are playing than a year ago after they qualified for the World Cup - but also allows emerging nations to cultivate financial support.

Indeed, part of the rationale for a 20-team World Cup is to help developing countries become less dependent upon the largesse of World Rugby. Canada and the United States are prime examples: in the last decade, the proportion of their revenue that comes from World Rugby, rather than outside sources, has fallen from almost half to 10%. "Being in the World Cup is a huge boost to those countries being able to bring in a range of sponsors," says Morgan Buckley, General Manager Development for World Rugby.

The ECB is being short-sighted by not allowing some 2019 World Cup matches to be hosted in venues like Edinburgh © Getty Images

World Rugby views the return of rugby to the Olympic Games, after 92 years, as the next stage in its development. "If you're an Olympic sport it opens the doors into ministries of education and rugby can be on the curriculum," explains Buckley. "When rugby is shown on every TV screen next year people will really see rugby in a new light." Olympic status will be a particular boon for women's rugby.

Already the impact of rugby's vision is becoming apparent: the total number of players beyond the ten Tier One nations more than doubled, from 1.45 million to 3.25 million, between 2012 and 2015. This is globalisation at high speed. And it has come not in spite of rugby's traditional powers but largely because of them. As in cricket, elite rugby nations are not immune to self-interest. But unlike in cricket, they have the foresight to recognise that spreading the game provides the best guarantee of their wealth in the long-term, as Buckley says. "They realise that having a global World Cup, with the TV deals that are done in Asia and throughout the globe, benefits everybody."

Many at the ICC share World Rugby's expansionary zeal. Some of the results here are startling, too: the number of cricketers beyond the Test world rose from 500,000 to 1.4 million between 2010 and 2015. But, for all the brilliant work of the ICC's Global Development Programme, it is the pull of playing in the World Cup that has underpinned the self-betterment of many of those beyond the Test elite. After their dramatic entrance onto the world stage in 2007, Ireland rapidly attained heights unimagined in the 275 years in which cricket had been played in the country: participation numbers have quadrupled since, and the Irish government, on both sides of the border, has been suitably impressed. Unyielding determination to get onto the world stage, and show the globe a different side of the country, has inspired Afghanistan's journey.

All Blacks players play rugby with Japanese schoolkids in Tokyo, 2013 © AFP

The Associate world is no longer just about these two nations: two other Associates, the Netherlands and Hong Kong, toppled Full Members at last year's World T20. This success represents vindication for the vision of the late Jagmohan Dalmiya in creating the Champions Trophy in 1998 as a tool to bankroll funds for non-Test-playing countries.

Yet cricket now seems content to put up the white flag on its global ambitions. It is not only the cricket fraternity who notice the ICC's myopia in contracting the World Cup, disingenuously presenting the World T20 as a 16-team event rather than a ten-team tournament with a qualifier tacked on, and shunning the Olympics. Governments have paid heed too. While rugby has benefited from sizeable investment from governments, including in China and the US, after joining the Olympics, cricket's rejection of the Games makes funding cricket altogether less appealing. The Irish Sports Council have let it be known that it would be highly likely to increase funding for cricket if it became an Olympic Sport. As Ireland attempts to get financial support from the government to build permanent stands at grounds, it will not pass unnoticed either that while the ECB allowed Ireland, the Netherlands and Scotland to host matches in the 1999 World Cup, it has made it clear it will not do so again in 2019.

For cricket, the fear is short-term greed will have a deleterious long-term impact. As football continues to expand, rugby and cricket compete for attention underneath. It should be an unfair battle. The ICC has the capacity to do far more than World Rugby to grow the sport: between 2007 and 2015 the ICC generated profits of $900 million, around $500 million more than World Rugby; the ICC expects to double its figure between 2015 and 2023.

Rugby in Rio: a sport's presence in the Olympics has a knock-on effect in participation, government funding and sponsorship © Getty Images

Yet by diverting more revenue to Australia, England and India than the other 103 ICC members combined, cricket risks "losing the inherent trust of the public," believes the sports ethics campaigner Jaimie Fuller. "If the consequences of this are that they lose their very valuable place in the pantheon of sports rankings then they will deserve all they get."

In March Andy Balbirnie scored 97 in Ireland's thrilling victory over Zimbabwe in the World Cup. He has watched World Rugby's inclusive attitude jealously.

"These Japanese players are heroes and that is what this rugby World Cup is doing - creating heroes. The ICC has such an opportunity to do the same," he says. "For Associate players to become heroes they need to show off their skills on the biggest stage, which is a World Cup. Cricket will miss out on the underdog story that we all love no matter what the sport."

As rugby eyes establishing its World Cup among the top three sports events in the world - behind only the football World Cup and Olympics - cricket should be wary. The myopia, greed and short-termism of cricket's ruling elite, led by the guilty men running the game in Australia, England and India, risks grave consequences for the sport's well-being. It might not only be rugby that leaves cricket behind.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on September 30, 2015, 17:04 GMT

    @TIM WIGAMORE: Thanks for replying, while i admire your idealism and romanticism but i and some others are lets say cynical, look i am not being "Status Qouist " i would love the game to expand and become a mainstream sport instead of being a fringe or a subcontinental sports but right now all that is fanciful talk and wishful thinking.You yourself admitted that NFL and Football are primarily club based and that is a huge plus because that makes 300 to 400 elite options at the top level available for prospective players unlike Cricket where national team only has 15 to 16 elite options to offer. Ironically much maligned IPL has stopped many kids here in India from giving up Cricket because of obvious fame and riches provided by it. England and Australia as founding fathers of the game have failed to spread and market the game in Western world in early 20th century.

  • Dummy4 on September 30, 2015, 13:48 GMT

    @JAYAESH SINGH BAGHEL - With respect, the game has already grown significantly in Ireland and Scotland. A decade ago no one imagined that Ireland could beat Pak, England and the Windies in the World Cup. Do you really think cricket there and in Afghanistan, Nepal, PNG etc is futile? Should the 1.4 million players beyond the 10 full members be told they are wasting their time and should play another sport that wants them?

    The NFL is a partial exception because of the wealth of the US (and it has always been based on clubs not countries - yet even the Wembley eg shows it is trying to expand...) but the fact is every other international sport in the world is both expanding the size of its world events - even the World Baseball Classic is 16 teams - and pursuing Olympic status, recognising the huge benefits that come from it. Are they all wrong to do so?

  • George on September 30, 2015, 11:57 GMT

    This is a very good reason why the number of teams at the next Cricket World Cup should be increased to 16 (Four groups of 4) with the top two teams going onto the knockout stage, quarter finals and so on. This should happen in order to promote this wonderful game world-wide as that should be the main objective of the all involved in cricket.

  • Dummy4 on September 30, 2015, 10:49 GMT

    @TIM WIGAMORE: I just read your reply and i am not convinced and sorry to say you are evading the question, as @JOHANTHEKIWI said NFL is one of the richest sporting league in the world and apart from few games held in London primarily for American expats nobody outside United States follows it or know any rules but none of the NFL followers in United States care whether other nations are following there sports or not , in Ireland and Scotland sports like Football and Rugby are firmly entrenched so why would any Scottish/Irish kids will take up a game like Cricket which pays 1/10 th of what they will make in 2nd division of English Football, game of Cricket can only grow in Afghanistan,Nepal and Maybe P&G. Lets first revive waning interest in Cricket in England before harboring dreams of global expansion.

  • Dummy4 on September 30, 2015, 9:24 GMT

    Thanks for all the comments, very interesting! Few specific replies:

    @Dave Treehouse: Absolutely cricket should be in the Olympics. In exchange for 10 days every four years the ICC would be getting governments to foot the bill for expansionism - based on the example of rugby sevens, China could received $20 million a year from the government. Wrote about it here if its of interest: http://www.espncricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/755727.html

    @JOHNTHEKIWI - A curious post. Remind me where Grant Elliott was born (or a number of England players in recent years). In Japan domestic rugby and the playing pool is getting stronger, just as it has done in Afghanistan, Ireland, PNG, Nepal and many others in cricket. Worth remembering that there has always been resistance to expanding the game - people said giving Test status to Pakistan and Sri Lanka was wrong because the game was too complicated and it would devalue the competition..

  • Dummy4 on September 29, 2015, 15:32 GMT

    I agree 100 % with sentiments echoed by @JOHNTHEKIWI and @FORMERMINER, i adding anything else would be futile and stretching it.

  • John on September 29, 2015, 15:16 GMT

    What a bunch of rot! Here is the "Japanese" team that beat South Africa-Ayumu Goromaru; Akihito Yamada, Male Sau, Harumichi Tatekawa, Kotaro Matsushima; Kosei Ono, Fumiaki Tanaka; Masataka Mikami, Shota Horie, Kensuke Hatakeyama, Luke Thompson, Hitoshi Ono; Michael Leitch (capt), Michael Broadhurst, Hendrik Tui. Notice anything about some of those names? Let me know when the starting XI for Mauritius has names like Taylor, Starc, Cook, Holder, Ashwin and Bracewell in it. Cricket is a fringe sport, it is awesome, but it is fringe and the facility and surface requirements make it unique. Why does it have to expand? On a per game basis the NFL generates more revenue than any other sport in the world but it has zero chance of spreading in any meaningful way to the rest of the world. That's fine. This obsession with trying to shoehorn cricket into a paradigm that fits within a 90 minute ~ 100 X 60 meter grass surface game is ridiculous.

  • Brian on September 29, 2015, 14:55 GMT

    I am fascinated by Cricinfo's enormous and somewhat socialist zeal for the underdog, or as it likes to term them fishily - "minnows"! One surprise in the face of a hundred lopsided results and the website lights up like a Christmas tree!

    If you want nations to grow fringe sports like Cricket and Rugby, then club sports must be encouraged. It is easier to put together some domestic and some international free-agents in a club than to compose a team of domestic players. Over years, the number of domestic competitors increases. Inter-nation matches should be few and far between. The oft-quoted example of Soccer increasing nations participating the the World Cup lives by club matchups, not international. It has given rise to both - a host of African nations and top flight athletes.

    The prime contests in Cricket are international. The system is the greatest impediment to the development of the sport.That and the 19th century relic called Test matches!

  • Dummy4 on September 29, 2015, 13:04 GMT

    Excellent article, but despite all of the goodwill towards the associates, the numerous supportive articles and quotes from many respected journalists and ex internationals, the online petitition with 20,000 signatures, and the vast majority of cricinfo comments being in favour of associate nations getting more opportunities to play at world tournaments, it all seems to have fallen on deaf ears with those who call the tune (N. Srinivasan, Giles Clarke, Wally Edwards and Dave Richardson). For shame ICC.

  • John on September 29, 2015, 10:37 GMT

    Not much mention of Netherlands here. They have appeared at numerous world tournaments and have not shown any growth at all. I even hear suggestions that their game is in decline.