Martin Williamson
Executive editor, ESPNcricinfo, and managing editor, ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

Is global expansion all that it is cracked up to be?

A long way from home

Martin Williamson asks whether the ICC's picture of global expansion is as accurate as it seems

Martin Williamson

January 30, 2007

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Kenya's Steve Tikolo and Bermuda's Irvine Romaine get the World Cricket League underway. Both countries field home-grown players ... but not all those participating can say the same © ICC
It won't get many column inches in the mainstream cricket press, but the World Cricket League, which started in Nairobi yesterday and continues into next week, features the best of the rest, the six sides just under the ten Test-playing countries. For the two finalists, the rewards are bountiful - a place among the big boys in the inaugural Twenty20 World Championship in South Africa this September, along with $250,000. For countries used to surviving on annual handouts from the ICC of less than $200,000, that's big money.

With the exception of Bermuda, cricket is not a mainstream sport in any of the participants. And yet it survives, and in some instances thrives, despite the lack of attention and a relatively small number of enthusiasts.

The ICC, who do sterling work in supporting the game's second and third tiers, will rightly use the event to highlight that cricket is not just about the Indians and Australias of the world.

But there remains a nagging worry. The ICC boasts that the game is spreading across the world. But is that right? Is it taking root or is it surviving because more people from its hotbed - south-east Asia - are emigrating and keeping it alive for the duration of their careers?

In last year's Wisden Almanack, Matthew Engel raised this very issue. "Overwhelmingly, the game in non-traditional countries is played by expatriates, mostly South Asian. Journalists were kidded into believing that cricket was about to burst on China, on the basis of some warm comments by civil servants and a couple of coaching courses. I have seen not one shred of evidence to back this up. Are the kids playing with tapeballs on the streets of Shanghai? Are they heck!"

Take Canada. Of the squad in Nairobi at the moment, only three were born in the country, and two of those are over 35. Of the rest, five come from the Caribbean, four from India and each from Pakistan and Uganda. Whereas other Associates have a smattering of expats, Canada are utterly reliant on them.

Engel's comment attracted fierce criticism from those who either argued that England had more than their share of "imports" or that the game only spread in Asia, Africa, Australasia and the Caribbean through expats playing it in the first place.

The worry in some countries is that rather the game is not being continued by the second and third generations but is only being maintained by a steady flow of new immigrants
With regards to England, yes there have been quite a few non English-born players who have been picked for the side, but the game still has a massive stronghold in the country. The selection has been more about improving a solid side. And as for the ex-pats argument? Well, yes, but that's the crucial point. In the regions flagged the game was brought in but it was then embraced by the indigenous population and taken on as their own. This is exemplified no better than in CLR James's seminal work, Beyond A Boundary.

The worry in some countries - and again I come back to Canada - is that rather the game is not being continued by the second and third generations but is only being maintained by a steady flow of new immigrants. Canada's cricket heritage is rich but there is little sign that it has been built on. This is best underlined by the selection of former West Indies international Anderson Cummins. Forty years old and without a major match to his name since 1995-96, he made his debut in Mombasa last week. What message does that send out about the strength in depth of cricket in Canada?

It's not just Canada. Look at the USA, whose 2004 Champions Trophy side was a collection of ageing expats whose performances verged on the disgraceful. And the UAE, which is almost entirely dependant on its ex-pat workforce to keep the game alive.

Cricket's expansion should not be about filling teams with expats and expecting the locals to get excited about it. The only way cricket can gain a foothold in emerging countries is by actually getting the indigenous population to embrace the game, and two excellent examples where this is happening are Nepal and Uganda.

Anderson Cummins of Barbados, West Inbies ... and now Canada © Eddie Norfolk
Does it matter? Yes, because as the ICC looks to develop the game in as many places as possible, that means the financial cake has to be cut in ever thinner slices. The ICC needs to concentrate on a smaller number of countries where the chances of the game taking off. It is invidious that Uganda gets the same basic allowance as Belgium.

Cricket is in trouble in its traditional homes in Africa - Zimbabwe are hell-bent on destruction and South Africa seems to be falling out of love with the game. So efforts should be made in Uganda . And in Asia, which everyone accepts is the game's stronghold, a side like Nepal should really be given the leg up. It's about targeting rather than a scattergun approach.

In fairness to the ICC, they have a tough time and a lot of countries scrambling for a share of the spoils. It's about weeding out the weak and really looking to grow the game in areas where it has the best chance of taking root. It's an almost impossible ask. Look at the repeated failure of American Football to crack Europe ... and if football itself still battles for acceptance outside expats and schools in the USA, then the size of the ICC's task becomes clear.

Of course expats have a key role to play in expansion. But if the game is basically played by them, is it the game spreading or is it more about diehards clinging to the traditions of their homelands? In the UK there are baseball and American football sides, but they are almost all expat Americans and so few would seriously claim the games have taken hold. However, basketball and ice hockey are widely played by locals, boosted by some imported players and expats, and, crucially, the national side can stand on its own two feet. That's the difference.

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Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo

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Martin Williamson Executive editor Martin Williamson joined the Wisden website in its planning stages in 2001 after failing to make his millions in the internet boom when managing editor of Sportal. Before that he was in charge of Sky Sports Online and helped launch and run Sky News Online. With a preference for all things old (except his wife and children), he has recently confounded colleagues by displaying an uncharacteristic fondness for Twenty20 cricket. His enthusiasm for the game is sadly not matched by his ability, but he remains convinced that he might be a late developer and perseveres in the hope of an England call-up with his middle-order batting and non-spinning offbreaks. He is now managing editor of ESPN EMEA Digital Group as well as his Cricinfo responsibilities.
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