November 6, 2009

The threat to cricket's centre

It's not a battle between 50- and 20-over cricket, it's about who's playing. And that should worry the ICC

Starting today, Harsha Bhogle's column will appear on Cricinfo on Fridays

More than halfway through what some thought would be a long series, the one-day international seems to be doing quite well. Stadiums in India are full, people seem quite happy to sit through 50 overs, crowds are as noisy as ever. For a patient we thought was on oxygen, the one-day international seems to be in extraordinarily robust health.

Two months ago, the critics panned another one-day series. After a hard-fought Ashes battle, England and Australia drove around the country playing each other in seven one-day games. The players said it was tiring (but one team seemed more tired than the other). Again it produced full houses and it seems things are a bit like in the movie industry, where big-ticket films routinely get trashed by the critics and deliver good numbers at the box office. So have columnists, commentators and critics lost touch with popular taste? Is the format under siege? Or do we need to delve deeper?

In recent times I have been lucky to be at two superbly organised, highly competitive cricket tournaments that delivered average returns at the box office. The Champions Trophy in South Africa and the Champions League Twenty20 produced quality cricket, some of it seriously good, but found audiences, both at the ground and in front of television sets, very choosy about which games to patronise. An England v Australia semi-final couldn't fill a relatively small ground in Centurion, and games that didn't involve home franchises were poorly attended in the Champions League - till the semi-finals and the final; and even so admission to those last games was easier than it has ever been in India.

If the value of multi-team tournaments drops - and that will automatically be reflected in sponsorship and television revenue - it could have implications for tier four, five and six games, where teams cannot survive without financial support from the ICC

So it does seem that it is the identity of the teams rather than the quality of cricket that seems to count. Where every game is a home game, crowds have been enthusiastic and ratings have been decent. Neutral games have floundered a bit. But remember, too, that the two series, England v Australia and India v Australia, have something else to offer. With the first there is a traditional rivalry that seems to rise above the occasional mismatch, and with the second there is a promise of combative cricket and an evolving antagonism that is sometimes good for sales. Maybe dreary games between teams that don't excite the senses are the ones to worry about; maybe New Zealand v Pakistan in Abu Dhabi will give us more clues. Maybe, like with most things, the context is critical.

But if we are indeed moving to the conclusion that bilateral games where one of the teams is playing at home are where audience interest lies, it has worrying implications for the ICC, which organises multi-country tournaments at one venue. It is these events that generate the revenue the ICC needs for its functioning, and more critically, for the development of the game in newer markets. So if the value of these games drops - and that will automatically be reflected in sponsorship and television revenue - it could have implications for tier four, five and six games, where teams cannot survive without financial support from the ICC. Already we have seen Scotland, Ireland and Holland playing better cricket because of more competition; and we have seen the spectacular arrival of Afghanistan. It helps that the ICC has a television deal in place till 2015, but if evidence continues to mount in favour of the bilateral one-day or Twenty20 game, the next round of rights could deliver lower revenues.

And if the IPL continues to deliver good returns for its stakeholders, not just broadcasters but advertisers and ground sponsors, that will mean more money sucked out of the global game and towards the local game. We could end up in a situation, to some extent prevalent already, where the game has large, influential local dynasties and a relatively loose, powerless centre. And I am not only talking about India, which continues to be the engine for the game, but England, Australia and South Africa. In fact, almost certainly, the England-South Africa games later this year will find greater support than the Champions Trophy did, and the India-South Africa one-day series in February will give us more pointers towards where the game is headed. As indeed will the numbers from Australia, who host Pakistan and West Indies.

But, increasingly, it does look like it isn't a battle between 50 overs and 20 overs cricket, but about who is playing it.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Vidyadhar on November 7, 2009, 23:12 GMT

    It is not purely love of the game that drives cricket in India. If India Australia matches draw an audience it is one thing. But does a Ranji Trophy game however competitive generate interest in the country. Even the finals are watched by a few hundred at the most. Let us not kid ourselves. It is fashionable to watch and talk about some of these high profile matches. Real love of sports is not in our culture. It is the real reason for lack of success in olympics and other sports.

  • Sudeep on November 7, 2009, 18:55 GMT

    Harsha, you couldnt have summed it any better. It is not a battle between the formats of the game. It is all about who is playing the game. Any game involving India is bound to have viewership all around the world. It is definetly not the case with other countries. And in India too, neutral matches dont attract viewership. I mean if Eng v WI is happeneing in india the viewership is going to be pale, whatever be the format of the game.The same was the case in Aus too when SLvIND was being played. It is the same everywhere. Personally i dont think League stuff helps ICC to generate money. It is a simple. no home team, imnt that bothered is the reaction of people.Now how do ICC take the game places, generate revenue? Its not that easy to answer i guess. ICC have been trying with different formats, different schedules, but nothing have clicked that great so far. Probably the indavidual boards can share a % with ICC to boost its revenues and ICC inturn uses that for taking the game places.

  • Rahul on November 7, 2009, 17:38 GMT

    Absolutely. The emergence of club cricket in the game has created a near 9.0 richter scaled earthquake all round!! Hence, very soon a dedicated solution should be presented by the ICC. With IPL gaining extreme popularity and people waiting for the next edition just as one season ends, now, it can't be stopped. Almost the Same goes for CL. Something here which can be done is making the tournaments more complicated. Instead of holding multi-format tournaments at one particular venue, they must be hosted over multiple venues, say for example, the sub-continent and the Oceania! Similarly, the Carribean and the Africa and it goes on. Further, making bi-, tri-lateral series a stage for gaining higher position and advantage in the world cups bringing more enthusiasm for people and a sense of urgency for the players and the team and hence even if a team has already lost a series with 3 games to go, they play with a full-fledged unit and give crowds a run for their money!

  • Mohan on November 7, 2009, 14:46 GMT

    bone101: Instead of wanting to wear national colours, they can aspire to wear their city colours. As for India not having enough talent, we can't go by the talent that we see today which is produced by the existing system of limiting opportunity to only 11 players. Look at it this way - SL is 1/50th of India's size and not that much different from India in terms of economic and social parameters. Doesn't that tell us that India should be able to produce at least a dozen teams of that quality?

    mcs: Aussies don't have to watch the IPL. You can have your own league. You can easily have 6-8 teams - Melb, Sydney, Adelaide, Perth, Auckland, etc. Similarly Saffies and Poms can have their own leagues too. National teams can compete in a world cup once in four years for a world cup. And it is not necessary that these leagues should be limited to 20-20 cricket either. Let them play 5-day matches too.

  • couchman on November 7, 2009, 12:32 GMT

    I personaly think it is a battle between 50 and the long-format. Purists may not like or agree but I have a feeling that is the battle now.

  • Steve on November 7, 2009, 10:11 GMT

    I think we are getting a little ahead of ourselves here. Cricket is a minor sport on the world stage. Sure try to expand the game by inviting other countries but the reality is that it is a minor sport even in countries that are fully fledged Test playing nations. I think that supporters in India get a distorted view of the game. Yes its huge in India, big in England and Aust but even in South Africa it ranks behind soccer and rugby, is a minor sport in NZ which has a short season, is struggling in the Windies which is not a country as such but a region that is increasingly under the influence of the US where the money in their sports attracts young athletes, both Sri Lanka and Pakistan have their own problems. Its a small group of countries with large disparities in wealth, different social make ups, attitudes to sport etc. Lets give thanks that the game does as well as it does where it is played and not kid ourselves about expansion into franchises etc.

  • Ravish on November 7, 2009, 9:26 GMT

    @Neilm81 - "what is needed is more meaningful cricket for all nations to play in,that way ESPN will get their revenues from sources other than the BCCI". Are you suggesting that world cups are not meaningful? Why is that even for world cups 80% of ads/sponsorships are coming from India? Unfortunately, we are a one-sport nation. Personally, I would prefer a lot of that money go to other sports in the country and help other sportsmen. Instead most of the money is going out to a few players in India, BCCI, other boards, and players from other nations. It is not a good situation to be in. Corporates should invest some of that money in some olympic sports so that we can get some athletes. Its better than how its wasted now - contributing 80% to ICC and all that. It might sound chavunistic but look at the plight of other sports in the nation. They could sure use some infrastructure from these corporate sponsorship that is wasted by dumping it on ICC.

  • Matthew on November 7, 2009, 9:07 GMT

    IPLFan- deluded Indians like you make me laugh! Cricket is a game with a history built not on American style Franchises of the IPL but on the honour and passion of playing for one's country. If you get rid of nation vs. nation, you will kill the game. Australian's couldn't care less about the Dehli Dumbos or the Mumbai Egos, we love cricket because we love watching our national team taking on the world The day the ICC stops controlling cricket will be the day that cricket dies. The BCCI already is doing its best to control the game, and its influence is nothing but highly negative.

    If you think that IPL is the highest level of cricket, then you really are deluded. It removes the foundation of cricket- a contest between bat and ball. IPL and all those competitions will be nothing but 2nd grade cricket. It will never come close to replacing test cricket as the pinnacle of our game. And if it does, then I like a majority of cricket fans, will long have given up the game for dead.

  • N. on November 7, 2009, 7:45 GMT

    This debate is not about how great Indian cricket is, or Tendulkar's inning the other day(which was indeed great). Bangalore Kid,what is needed is more meaningful cricket for all nations to play in,that way ESPN will get their revenues from sources other than the BCCI. Otherwise why not just play cricket only in India all year round and let the Indian team have automatic qualification into the finals of any ICC tournament ? Cricket needs a truly international game so there are 15-20 nations playing instead of the 8 we have now.

    I'm a huge India fan and despite being upset at out exit in the ICC Twenty20 WC and Champions Trophy, it was clear that we needed to lose to get our focus back on players who need to play with a focus and hunger. This anecdotally seems to have been lost by the huge money on offer in the IPL and has created a new breed of 'soft' player that doesn't seem to have realised the efforts of people like Dravid, Tendulkar, Kumble(ie. the true Test cricketer)

  • Aditya on November 7, 2009, 6:59 GMT

    It is not about who is playing the game, but about the involvement of the spectator. Personally, I would not watch the IPL. The last IPL, I did not watch a single match of forty overs, and I watched about four games partially. I would rather watch an India Vs Australia match, or India playing South Africa, Pakistan, etc. Today, we see the predicament Australia find's herself in. There are ten frontline players, who find themselves out of the Australian team, due to injury. Perhaps, Siddle is not considered by many to be a frontline bowler, reading some of the comments in Cricinfo,com, especially from the Australian patron's of the website. I would still watch the remainder of the cricket series, between India, and Australia.

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