Friday 19 August 2016

The Twenty20 Olympics - RIP

Friday has been earmarked for politics day here at the Leaflocker, and there’s no politics quite like cricket politics, so that sounds like as good an excuse as any to segue into a rambly post about my favourite sporty topic. Probably won’t actually involve politics.

To say that the governance of international cricket is a bit of a mess is quite the understatement, like saying that DG Bradman had a decent cover drive or that the English talk about the weather. By viewership numbers cricket is the second most popular game in the world, but those numbers are hugely dominated by the enormous Indian audience that are fanatically devoted to the game, and outside of about a dozen countries the sport is relegated to obscurity, played only by expatriates from the Empire with too much time on their hands.

Since I love the game of cricket with that same fanatical obsession, I naturally espouse the view that the game needs to be better advertised to the rest of the world in order to take its rightful place in the hearts and minds of the world. It’s a beautiful game, simple enough for sports fans to understand but nuanced, broken down into a series of two-person battles of will between the ball and the bat. With the advent of Twenty20, we have a version of the game that still feels like cricket but is more suited to television, finally overcoming the old problem of a match taking all day (or all week) making it hard to attract new fans. Yet it’s becoming harder and harder to believe that the cricket administrators of the major countries that run the game buy into that vision.

In the cricket-playing nations, with the odd exception (hello Big Bash!), cricket games are increasingly behind hidden behind paywalls. Australians can’t watch their test team get pummelled by Sri Lanka without Foxtel. A British fan can’t even watch their new Twenty20 domestic league without a subscription to ESPN. We bemoan decreasing crowds at domestic and international matches, but apparently can’t see the connection between having a chance to see the game on the television and being enthused to see games in person. The priorities remain the same, make as much money as possible as fast as possible and ignore the future of the game.

And that’s in the heartlands. In the rest of the world cricket might as well not exist. It will never have a groundswell of local support outside expat communities. It will never be on television. You know what might? Surfing. Skateboarding. Climbing. Why? They’ll be featured in the Tokyo Olympics. The Olympics are the big chance every four years for cricket to make it onto the international radar, and we should be jumping up and down to get in. The sport is big enough, they’ve been approached by the IOC on multiple occasions, but crickets governing body, the ICC, is against the idea. As someone who loves the game, that seems baffling. I mean, it can’t be that big a deal, right?

Participation in the Olympics is by no means the only thing that needs to change to see cricket flourish as the game deserves, a more transparent system of international scheduling, a standardised and realistic pathway for smaller nations to qualify to play internationally, an end to perpetual test status are among the items that all have to come up at some point, but for now, let’s focus on one little point.

What needs to happen for cricket to appear at the Olympics?

1) Cricket needs to be accepted as an Olympic sport

All indications appear to be that cricket would have a very good chance to become an Olympic sport, the audience and spread compare favourably with other candidate sports and there’s a built-in market that the IOC wants to tap into.

2) There needs to be a gap in the cricket schedule

Frankly, whether or not there's cricket at the Olympics, there ought to be a gap in the schedule for high level play during the game anyway. Yes, it's hard to find three weeks every four years to have a break in international play, but it's clear that no-one is watching any of the four test series that have been occurring during these two weeks anyway. Having a gap to allow players to travel and play in the Olympics isn't that big a sacrifice if it's plotted ahead of time, and since we'll know the dates at least four years in advance, that doesn't seem like a big issue either.

If something has to go to make room for the Olympics, there's an obvious candidate in the ICC Champions Trophy, an utterly contextless tournament that happens every fours years that seems to exist just so that everyone can spend more time wishing cricket was in the Olympics. Would cricket make less money by not having this tournament, yes, but I'm confident that the long-term gain would be worth the price.

3) Players need to be free to play

For Olympic cricket to be popular in the cricket world, the games need to feature the big name cricketers that we've all grown to love and respect, which means that the national cricket boards need to be willing to release their players to go be Olympians for a few weeks. Teams like the West Indies would have to split into their constituent countries and the players from the many and various teams in the UK would need to get together, and selection for those would be a nightmare, but cricket does have a national structure that should be able to adapt to this with relative ease. 

In Australia, all sorts of people pick a team every year, the CA chairman, the Prime Minister... why shouldn't the AOC have a go for once? It's not like they could do a worse job than whoever selected this pack of muppets to go play in Sri Lanka.

If this one were too much of a hurdle, cricket does have a structure for a junior tournament in the form of the U19 system that could use for the Olympics instead, but I think we'd all prefer to see the best players in the world to have the 

4) We’d need to agree on a qualification format

If cricket were to happen at the Olympics, we'd have to have a fair and transparent system that allows teams from all over the world to qualify to play instead of the often arbitrary and obviously self-serving systems that international cricket is currently in the habit of using. This would be a culture change, but it would be one that the cricket world sorely needs anyway, to get away from the current (obviously correct) assumption that teams  are allowed to play only for financial or political reasons instead of on their sporting merit.

We have five regions that cricket is apparently sorted into. In an ideal world we would use them, and have a regional qualification system for the Olympics that gives the smaller teams some small chance to beat the big names to get into the games. If not, there should be a system of qualification based on rank with the last spots (at least a quarter of available sports) open for qualification through a tournament. We're slowly moving this way (albeit in a VERY strange manner) with the World Cup and World T20 qualification, expanding that system to allow for the Olympics wouldn't be such a big deal, and would also give those minor nations another chance to play in a high-level competition, something they desperately need if these teams are going to compete.

I don't think the Test Status nations that might miss out on Olympic qualification would mind so much given that there's not the direct financial advantage of participating like there would be for the World Cup, either, one of the reasons that direct qualification tournaments have been rare in cricket so far, so getting a merit-based system going for the Olympics might be a good way to get something like that going. Who knows, we might decide that we like it.

5) The Olympic city needs to have appropriate cricket facilities

To have an Olympic event with a similar format to the soccer, you’d need to have 56 games of cricket in a two week period. That’s not going to work on one stadium. You could do it on two if you didn’t need rest days, but even if the players don’t the pitch probably would. Heck, even with four stadia you’re probably pushing the limits. Still, let’s assume four cricket grounds. They don’t need to all be in the host city, but you’re going to be hard pressed to find a country outside the big cricket nations that has four cricket stadia right now.
Tokyo, the host for the 2020 games has an international cricket field just an hour away regardless, but the facilities there are significantly undersized for an Olympic event. If Saxton Oval in Nelson, with a capacity of 5000 which hosted a few of the games at the recent Cricket World Cup goes to show though, as long you have the space, temporary stands can produce a good quality stadium on a budget, and look great on TV doing it, which is the main point of the exercise after all.

If some long-term improvements can be made to a local ground to help promote and encourage the growth of cricket there, isn’t that something the IOC should be looking at, with a view to increasing the spread of cricket around the world? I’d argue yes, for the two grounds in Tokyo, but finding another couple of ground in Japan that will still get used down the track worthy of the same treatment becomes difficult. Building a quality cricket oval from scratch is a couple of million bucks minimum, if you can even find the land, and that’s too much investment for a country that might not get good use out of them in the future, so we’re back to the option of  temporarily repurposing baseball or football grounds for the job. Cricket fields are strange beasts, and international standards require a field bigger than most sports, but in a world where drop-in pitches can be made to work in all sorts of strange places, maybe this obstacle is one worth trying to overcome in order to get cricket out there.

So hey, I guess it's a complicated issue after all, but I'm still firmly of the mind that the ICC ought to be trying desperately to move in that direction and attempting to overcome the obstacles. If there's one thing we could do to raise crickets profile and bring in the next generation of cricketers, it has to be this.

Blaugust Writing Prompts
1) What aspect of your life is criminally mismanaged?
2) What would you like to see at the Olympics that isn't there?
3) Are you sick of the Olympics yet?

1 comment:

Irac said...

I am glad you managed to squeak in with this post. I enjoyed the read and arguments. I hasn't thought about the lack of possible venues In the country. Makes you realize how lucky we are in Australia with the space we have available.

You know I would love to see orienteering at the Olympics. With GPS tracking getting better and better it is becoming more of a spectator sport. Route choices would make it tricky to capture. The cost of setting up a venue could all be taken up by the cost of setting up technology to capture the footage.And the Scandinavians would be sure to win the medals