March 3, 2015

The World Cup needs the Associates

Our sport can never hope to compete with football unless it takes an expansionist view

Cricket's administrators need to realise the long-term benefits of including the Associates © ICC

"Cricket is the only sport with a World Cup that is contracting rather than expanding," said Ireland's experienced batsman Ed Joyce before the World Cup. Joyce's comments were both pointed and prescient. He was objecting to the ICC's plan to reduce the number of teams at the 2019 World Cup from 14 to 10. It was also a statement of intent: Ireland had a point to prove. This World Cup has already provided evidence to support Joyce's view. Ireland humiliated West Indies, and the "second tier" or "Associate" nations have produced some of the most thrilling matches of the tournament.

It is now clear that the ICC must rethink the 2019 format and allow Associate nations to play a leading role. The energy, diversity and freshness of cricket's emerging teams must be nurtured and developed. We need them in, not out.

The format of the World Cup changed direction in 2007. Until then, the size of the field at World Cups had gradually grown since 1975, from eight to 16 teams. At the World Cup in the West Indies in 2007, Bangladesh beat India, and Ireland beat Pakistan - leading to early exits for both Asian powerhouses. TV audiences tanked as a consequence, revealing the familiar structural vulnerability of cricket's fan base.

Never again, please - that was the message from the broadcasters to the administrators. Hence the format for this World Cup is designed to ensure that the established teams are given every chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals ("every chance", in this instance, may not add up to quite enough chances for England).

A healthy sports league is like a great team. It holds and preserves a series of balances: between familiarity and change, established players and new voices, tradition and innovation, safety and risk

The appropriate format for the World Cup belongs to a far broader and more important story. Cricket is routinely described as the second-most popular team sport in the world (behind football, of course). But cricket has a very unusual series of skews and imbalances that make its position as a premier international game potentially fragile.

First of all, cricket relies - to an unusual degree - on the international game. It is hard, in the current circumstances, to imagine cricket as a serious sport without vibrant, competitive and unpredictable international matches. That requires a healthy number of teams comprising, in effect, a world league of cricketing nations. If the international game becomes dull, predictable and stale, cricket would have serious problems affecting players, fans and broadcasters alike. So keeping the league of international teams in good health is a pre-eminent concern.

Football, in contrast, would be quite robust even if internationals were banned tomorrow. In the age of the Champions League, the Premier League, La Liga and all the rest, the world's top talent can find fulfilling expression outside the context of one country playing another. Top club football, in many respects, has outstripped the international game, not only in terms of quality and remuneration, but also, perhaps, status.

Yes, the IPL - with its franchises drawing global talent while operating inside one country - has nudged cricket significantly in that direction. But whatever the financial clout of the IPL, it does not have anything like the kudos of football's Champions League. The IPL cannot entirely define and cement a player's reputation in quite the same way.

That is why the standard argument about World Cup formats - that commercial pressures (i.e. television) must be balanced against the good of the game - is not quite accurate. Long-term commercial instincts, I think, are also strongly in favour of growing the pool of fully fledged international teams. Cricket will become a much better spectacle if the game consists of a wider range of voices, drawing in new audiences and cultures.

Let's make the same argument in a different way. If television contracts ran for 50 years rather than, say, five years, I think the media executives would be demanding that more space - not less - was provided for Ireland, UAE, Scotland and Afghanistan. Over the long term, breadth and diversity is good for a sport's health. So we should reposition the hinge of the debate. It is not the Evils of Money versus the Good of the Game, but short-termism versus long-termism.

Very loosely, this is the challenge facing international cricket: to nurture the sport, to improve the level of competition, to reach new audiences, to inspire new fans, to encourage a wider and more diverse range of communities across the world to follow and promote cricket, to strengthen and deepen existing loyalties while winning new ones.

A healthy sports league is like a great team. It holds and preserves a series of balances: between familiarity and change, between established players and new voices, between tradition and innovation, between safety and risk, between trying new things and yet preserving what has always worked. Though the best teams look stable, they are, in fact, never static. They are able to take on the appearance of permanence, in fact, only because they are always adapting and evolving.

Someone must always look to the future. For cricket, that means using the World Cup wisely, as both a wonderful showcase for the best in the game and also a realistic target and channel for the aspirations of Associate nations. This is no time for cricket to contract. If it merely settles for what it has got, it is likely to lose that as well.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. @edsmithwriter