August 29, 2008

Short form, big stage

Why Twenty20 needs to make it to the Olympics if cricket is to be a truly global sport

Twenty20 is a format in which even the weaker teams can compete, and is cricket's best bet for inclusion at the Olympics © Getty Images

Being at the Olympics is probably the final step for a sport to be recognised globally. To be an Olympian is a huge attraction. If we can graduate cricket to that level, which I hope the authorities are having a look at, it would be fantastic.

Right now we have ten countries playing competitive cricket, and a lot of others making up the numbers. It is going to take a long time to get all the teams to a uniformly acceptable standard, if ever, but we need to try and bring as many of the associates to a level where any of them stands a chance of competing. We've seen Zimbabwe beat Australia in the ICC World Twenty20, so maybe that is the format for the Olympics. It's short enough and attractive enough for other countries to take up, and for the authorities to consider for inclusion in the Games.

Cricket was once an Olympic sport. For it to become one again, there has to be a structure in place for the associates that supports and accelerates the growth and the standard in those countries. The hard part is generating interest, support, finance, and ensuring there is solid infrastructure in place. We need vibrant interest from the established countries, the associates and the countries that are just starting to understand and play cricket. You need to get people interested - not just the expats around the world but natives in countries that have not yet taken up the sport. As far as the ICC is concerned, it will find its next cash cow more easily if the game goes global. A cricket explosion will happen. Not in the next five or six years, but not too far down the road either.

The IPL model is one worth exploring if cricket's appeal is to go global. Various countries could launch their own Twenty20 leagues and the established nations could boost the process by playing exhibition games at neutral venues, thereby enhancing interest. There are venues in the USA, Canada and Morocco. China is an option. We need to see if countries are interested in constructing grounds, have exhibition games there, take the game to new audiences, see if there is acceptance.

You could argue that cricket has over 100 years of history, and doesn't need any more recognition. Sure, there is a lot of passion and spectator interest, but does that make it a global sport? We need to make it like soccer, which everyone plays

It's going to be a huge challenge to have cricket at the 2020 Olympics, but it is a realistic goal for the administrators and players to aim at. Cricket was at the Commonwealth Games in 1998, and it will be part of the Asian Games. If such sporting competitions are looking at cricket as viable, then we have to justify their support. The vindication for playing a sport is when it is recognised globally. Not like the World Series in baseball, where all teams bar one are from one country.

You could argue that cricket has over 100 years of history and doesn't need any more recognition. Sure, there is a lot of passion and spectator interest, but does that make it a global sport? We need to make it like soccer, which everyone plays. Getting cricket into the Olympics is a logical step.

Basketball gradually progressed into an Olympic sport. The USA dominated Olympic basketball for some time. But at the last Olympics they were knocked out in the semi-final by Argentina. That just shows that on the Olympic stage, athletes push themselves higher. Zimbabwe beating Australia in the World Twenty20 is in a sense bigger than Argentina beating the USA in the Olympics. Established greats can never be sure of a medal because the occasion inspires everyone to give it their best.

Cricketers have a huge role to play in taking the game global. Icons like Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Sanath Jayasuriya, Muttiah Muralitharan, Kevin Pietersen, Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden are the ones who are followed individually, and they can make a huge impact on promoting the game. A lot of the players who are now pushing for cricket's inclusion in the Olympics won't be playing when it happens, but they can say they were part of a movement. That will be a hugely satisfying achievement.

I've spoken to Gilchrist, who has strong views on Twenty20 at the Olympics, and now I'm a believer myself. The time is now, and we need to act. The ICC, the various boards, and the players have to formalise a plan. It must be a collective effort.