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What did cricket in the 2010s teach us?

Cricket can't claim to be the world's second most popular sport just because its fan base happens to be in the world's most populous countries Getty Images

My niece, who turns 13 in January, is a fast-bowling allrounder - the only kind of allrounder worth being. She has been playing organised cricket in Karachi since she was eight. In the family we have no idea how and why she began playing. Other than my professional association, cricket is as peripheral as can be to the family. Everybody has a passing interest in it, of course, and it'll always be a great conversation starter. But it's not like we are a family of cricketers, or that she had role models around her playing it. Far from it.

She picked it up out of boredom, at first playing around the house with whoever she could convince. Then she started pursuing it seriously. She joined a club with an open-minded coach, where she was the only girl. She went to a regional PCB age-group camp for a while, where she attracted enough interest for Urooj Mumtaz to notice her and, five years later, still remember her.

Of late, though, her interest has begun to dip - or rather, it has been encroached upon by other interests. Whatever the format, cricket still requires a time commitment, unlike other activities. She also used to watch a lot more of it - the IPL, T20Is and the Ashes - than she does now.

I've been convincing her to keep playing. It's not that she doesn't want to, but she plays basketball and football at school a couple of days a week already and after that, going for cricket post-school feels like a chore. To be honest, I've been struggling to find reasons why she should. Football and basketball take up less time; they offer greater physical release over a shorter period; and they are played at school, which makes it more convenient.

This isn't a lament about cricket's impending death, or the oversized space it occupies in modern lives. My niece isn't a representative example of a young fan-participant in Pakistan. She's a she, for a start, and for all the strides women's cricket has made in Pakistan there's still a long way to go. That she took up cricket at all with no encouragement is a reason to be glad, actually.

Instead, this is a discovery - more accurately, a re-discovery - which, by way of asking why cricket, asks what is cricket? And if you think about it, that is the question that has floated around the edges, or sat below as subtext, of probably every meaningful discussion you have had about cricket this last decade.

"New formats have also reminded us of what else cricket is - a more corruptible sport than many others"

This isn't meant to be a downer - that, look here we are, 200 years into the game's existence and how do we still not know what cricket is? It is actually a liberating idea, that even after 200 years this game has not fully revealed itself to us. This game has still not stopped evolving, or transforming, and that it is continually opening itself up (even if, some might snipe that it does so like a Babushka doll, shrinking with each revelation).

What is cricket? One answer on the clear evidence of this decade is what cricket isn't - a mass global sport. In sparkly brochures and jargon-heavy mission statements cricket wants to be the world's most popular sport. In reality cricket has acted contrary to this ambition.

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The Big Three was this decade's most momentous administrative move - and these days the ensuing rollback since then feels both partial and flimsy. This is, sadly, cricket's administrative heart. They want to ensure cricket doesn't grow; that it remains what it is - the main sport of a few countries that happen to be among the world's most populous (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh all figure in the top ten). Those numbers help cricket buttress a nonsensical claim every couple of years - specifically when an ICC event is on and India and Pakistan play - of being the world's second-most popular sport. Behold, a billion-plus eyes on the game! More super than the Super Bowl! More cha-ching than the Champions League! If you shut your eyes and switch off your brain, sure, that rings true.

The truth is that vast tracts of the world are blind to cricket, or know it as that quirky little sport that goes on for five days, breaks for tea, and sometimes still produces no winner. They're blind to it in a way they aren't to football or, increasingly, basketball. The rugby World Cup began life with 16 teams; since 1999, it has been played with 20. Rugby held a World Cup in Japan this year, a smart punt into an expanding future. Football tried - and failed - to move to a 48-team World Cup. Cricket, meanwhile, has shrunk to a ten-team World Cup, and held its three World Cups this decade in India, Australia and England (plus a further four ICC events in those countries). No prizes for guessing where the first three global ICC events of the next decade are either. No surprises either that one of the world's most powerful cricket officials told an ESPNcricinfo journalist a few years ago that he didn't understand why his (very rich board) should help fund the game's growth in Papua New Guinea, or that another would ask why cricket should give a crap about China as a market.

By the end of the next decade, how much might these global, multinational tournaments even matter? Because over the last ten years, the idea that cricket is played, in its premium currency, between nations has depreciated. The World Test Championship and new ODI league are meant to rejuvenate, but few members make money off bilateral contests anymore. And neither concept is robust enough yet to withstand cricket's inherent structural flaw: that it can be shaped to the interests of one board.

It is simply no longer a given that international cricket retains primacy the same way it could in 2010 when there was only the IPL (although the flip side is, as in football, the global events may come to hold more meaning as there is less international cricket around them). Nearly every year since, a new domestic league has appeared: the BBL in 2011, the BPL in 2012, the CPL in 2013, the PSL in 2016, the Mzansi Super League and Afghanistan Premier League in 2018. Others come and go, and still more others will keep coming, all of them trying to squeeze into a Gregorian calendar that, guess what, hasn't changed since 1582.

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Twelve months is not nearly enough for cricket to be both an international and intra-national sport. As much as the current rumbling over an extra ICC event in the next cycle appears to feel especially portentous, so too does it sound like the inevitable conclusion to this decade. One logical solution surely lies in a Champions League for domestic franchises, though it would need to be far more equitable than the version that went bust after 2014.

Right now, you'd wager any such tournament would be played as a T20, but if there's one lesson to glean from the 2010s, it is that cricket is a spectrum as much as it is a sport. At one end is the five-day game: sport in the long form, sometimes meandering, sometimes frenzied, at all times requiring patience and care, but with uniquely high payoffs. At the other end, we're still going. T20 is cricket but this decade it became a sport in its own right. There are now two T10 leagues, and next summer, potentially the most radical leap since T20, in The Hundred. "What is cricket?" has never been a more relevant question than when confronting these interpretations of the game. The answer is: what you want it to be - it'll likely say more about you than the sport itself. To these eyes, all of it is cricket, or at least cricket-ish - and that is not a snide takedown.

"What is cricket? One answer on the clear evidence of this decade is about what cricket isn't - which is, a mass global sport"

T20 has done incalculable good for the game, foremost by teaching us the game all over again. That is precisely what the arrival and subsequent surge of analytics, with this format as the petri dish, has wrought. In some ways it has made this very old game brand new again, not only in how we, on the outside, take it in, but also how they, on the inside, play it. It is a bracing change. This game has always given healthy due to numbers, but to find that there is a whole new world of metrics to burrow deeper into is testament to its depth. It is in this sense that not knowing half as much as we thought about the sport, 200 years in, is most energising.

But these new formats have also reminded us of what else cricket is - a more corruptible sport than many others. There's an easy and depressing symmetry to highlight between this decade and the preceding one. Both were bookended by major corruption scandals: Hansie Cronje's confession began the millennium and the sting of the Lord's trio ended its first decade as well as marking the beginning of the new one; that Shakib Al Hasan was aware of all this and still found himself in breach of the anti-corruption code, meanwhile, is the sobering realisation to see us through the end of the second.

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The IPL, PSL and BPL have lived through their taints. Nearly every other league or tournament has been sold as an opportunity to the player and fan, but it is also one to a stakeholder, albeit an unwanted one - the fixer.

Over the last few years the ICC's Anti-Corruption Unit has become more proactive. Numbers of this kind aren't often made public, but it's not outlandish to think that more players than ever before are reporting approaches. And Shakib's case was a sign that the ICC might become more unsparing in its sanctions. But there's no lasting positive spin. As this decade has worn on and new leagues have cropped up and established ones have become complacent, the more inevitable it has become that more corruption scandals await.

My niece does speak to one cheerier truth. Never has it been clearer that cricket is a female sport as much as it is a male one. In theory, it has always been, of course, except in practice, hello patriarchy. But this decade more women than ever before have played international cricket. There has been more women's international cricket than ever before; more people have watched it; female cricketers are paid more than ever (and more are getting paid to play cricket); and there are more opportunities, by way of the WBBL, The Hundred upcoming, as well as the Women's T20 Challenge at the IPL.

Not simply more either, but bigger, faster, harder and better - indisputably the quality of women's cricket is better, even now without the magnificent Sarah Taylor (hands down the wicketkeeper of the decade). Professionalisation will do that. Sure, there's a gap between the top sides and the rest, but it's not as if the men's game is becoming more equal. And the spirit coursing through the women's game right now, of adventure and discovery and advancement, a more rooted, organic spirit, is worth bottling. More problematically, the running of cricket remains still in the hands of men, and in 2019, while that is not unbelievable, it is inexcusable.

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Some other answers did not change; we just needed reminding. That cricket, without being a contact sport, is dangerous. To say that something good can come from an event as tragic as the death of Phil Hughes is borderline facetious, but it has led to serious and necessary conversations about concussion in the game.

We were also reminded that cricket's trends are cyclical. How we bemoaned the gluttony of Test batting in the aughts, becoming all blasé about 50-plus averages and the highest batting average over a decade since the 40s. How we bemoaned the lack of great Test batting in the 2010s, fretting about the impact of shorter formats on techniques, and not celebrating enough the bowling (there has been a significant dip in average from the 2000s, and the strike rate across a decade is the best in a century).

What cricket is, is a batsman's game - until it is a bowler's game. Unless we're talking about white-ball cricket, where the parameters aren't quite the same and where batting has reinvented itself as an entirely new discipline.

"Never has it been clearer that cricket is a female sport as much as it is a male one. In theory, it has always been, of course, except in practice, hello patriarchy"

Pakistan is a good place to end, representing as it does a full circle of sorts for this decade. In early 2009 I went to watch a day of the first Test between Pakistan and Sri Lanka in Karachi. It wasn't much of a contest, with no crowd and no atmosphere.

On Saturday, I went to watch the first Test in Karachi, and only the second Pakistan, hosted in a decade. I took my niece along, part of a crowd of around 8000. She enjoyed the day, which was a stirring occasion but also a regular one. Because as well as all the grateful cheering for international cricket being played here again, there was some parody booing of Azhar Ali when he walked to the crease (presumably because the Lahori had replaced the Karachiite Sarfaraz Ahmed as Test captain and hadn't been much good), and posters of support for Fawad Alam.

What this suggested was that cricket was as internalised as it has always been, that it has not budged from inside the Pakistani fan as had been the fear in the aftermath of the Lahore terror attacks. That cricket is not a religion in these parts but a compulsion, or a vehicle, to a better life for players, and for nationalism and jingoism for fans. Sometimes, in fact, it feels like a much holier institution in England and Australia.

Saturday at the National Stadium also spoke to a broader truth. Talk of the death of cricket in Pakistan at the time both put into perspective the constant chatter that has marked this decade and the anxiety about Test cricket dying (because the possibility seemed so much realer in Pakistan after those attacks) and felt a part of that narrative. The word resilience gets around a fair bit but here, I suppose, is also what cricket is - much more attuned to survival than we give it credit for.

More in the decade in review, 2010-19