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