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

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

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