Tuesday, March 22, 2011

CRICKET - THE FUTURE

Over the last 4 weeks, the Group stage of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 was contested across 13 cities in 3 South Asian countries. The top-8 Test teams have eventually managed to make it to the quarterfinals, a prediction made by a lot of people well in advance. While for 4 of these teams, the ride was easy and straightforward; for 4 others, it was an up-and-down adventure!

Two teams, by general consensus, have been the most exciting teams to watch in this World Cup… and to no one’s surprise really, they are both from Group B – England and Ireland! There were a total of 11 matches involving these 2 teams, and 10 of them were definitely worth a watch. The only one-sided match where either of these teams was involved was the Ireland v. South Africa match at Eden Gardens, where South Africa won comfortably by 131 runs.

The Difference

However, the similarities between these two teams end here. The path ahead for England is very clear – win 3 straight matches and lift the World Cup, or lose in the interim and return home for some rest after a hectic few months of non-stop cricket! The path for Ireland is not quite so clear though. They have an ODI scheduled against Sri Lanka in a couple of months’ time, when the latter go on a tour of England, and they have a few fixture scheduled in ICC’s Associate tournament structure. But what next?

England host Sri Lanka followed by India in the coming months. Then they will visit India for their cricket tour in October. As for Ireland, I doubt if they will get to play this much cricket over the next 4 years, by the time the next World Cup comes calling in 2015.

So when the time comes for them to play in the Qualifying round for World Cup 2015 against the lowest-ranked teams amongst the Full Member countries, there is a good chance that they may be found wanting. Ireland did not get a lot of cricket to play over the 4 years separating their impressive performances in 2007 and 2011, yet they managed to put up a fine effort in the latter edition. THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT IF THEY DO NOT PLAY MUCH CRICKET OVER THE NECT 4 YEARS, THEY WILL AGAIN MANAGE TO PUT UP A FINE SHOW AGAIN IN 2015! Far from it, in fact!

Ireland in World Cup 2011

Cricket Ireland did a tremendous job in these four years from 2007 and 2011. They must be applauded for that. But in their achievement, they have pointed out to the ICC a mistake made by it. With their performances, they have clearly made a statement to the ICC telling them that had they been allowed to or made to play more top-level competitive games in this intervening period, they might well have been able to close out the games against Bangladesh and West Indies, where they were in a winning position, but lost out partly due to inexperience. They could have easily won those 2 games and finished 3rd in the Group B – the Group of Death – have would now have been in Colombo awaiting their Quarterfinal clash against Sri Lanka, while England would have had to be in Dhaka ready for South Africa, and West Indies on the flight home!

I believe that most cricket followers would opine that Ireland performed better in this World Cup than Bangladesh. The latter may have had more points, but one look at the NRRs of both these teams will give you an idea of the level of competitiveness that they played with. Bangladesh lost 3 matches in the World Cup – in one, they allowed the opposition to score 370 runs (the highest score of the tournament thus far), and in the other two, they were bowled out for paltry scores of 58 and 78 (two of the three lowest scores in this tournament thus far). A lot more was expected from a Test nation playing in conditions that were ideal for their brand of cricket.

Ireland, a minnow and an Associate, won only 2 matches – in one, they stole a win from England when all hopes seemed just about extinguished, and in another, they comfortably chased down a target in excess of 300 (with more than 2 overs to spare) against another Associate, the Netherlands, showing them in no uncertain terms, that they are ‘the best amongst the rest’. In the four matches they lost, they put up a hard fight in three, and were in winning positions in two of those three before losing out as much to inexperience as to the opponents.

However, the biggest difference between Bangladesh and Ireland in this World Cup, in my opinion, was not in the performances, but in the mindset. I recall one incident that I would like to bring to everyone’s notice. During the pre-match cricket program for the Bangaldesh v. West Indies game, the broadcaster aired an interview of Bangladesh’s bowling coach Ian Pont who made a remark that did not go down well with me, and even one of the studio experts. When asked about their chances of winning that match against West Indies and getting into the race for Quarterfinals qualification, Pont said that the team management had indentified that match as one of the four that they would target a victory in – the other three being against Ireland (already won at that stage), England and the Netherlands. Compare this to the Irish coach Phil Simmons’ comments where he said that the team was there to win. The Irish captain William Porterfield too stated on numerous occasions that the team would go for a win in all games that they play, regardless of the opposition, and given the way he captained the side and placed his fields, he certainly stuck to his promise.

The Problem for ICC

Numerous people have said during this World Cup that the Associate nations need more exposure against the top sides so that they may improve. Most of them were those associated with the Associates – Jimmy Kamande, Steve Tikolo, William Porterfield, Phil Simmons, Peter Borren, Ryan ten Doeschate, Ashish Bagai and others, but there have been a lot of other people, amongst the average cricket followers too.

I know that it will be difficult for ICC to do so. It makes little commercial sense to have a series, howsoever small, between a team like India or South Africa or Australia or England and Ireland or the Netherlands or even Scotland or Afghanistan. Moreover, these matches may not be contests as well… they may just end up being massacres that will force the ICC to stop this practice. So I have tried to think of a solution or two for the ICC, and how it can go about maximising the growth of cricket in these centres.

Possible Solutions

One of the most commonly suggested steps, which I would wholly support, is to organise frequent tours of ‘A’ teams of the stronger countries to the Associate countries. More exposure to good quality cricket in home conditions followed by more exposure to good quality cricket in alien conditions when they themselves will tour these countries for ‘A’ team matches should definitely show improvement.

There are also people who are suggesting that when major nations go on Test tours, they should play their warm-up matches against the Associate nations in that region. While Sri Lanka will just be playing an ODI match each against Ireland and the Netherlands during their tour of England later this year, I would also like to see more First Class matches involving Associate teams and Test teams. This again poses a commercial problem because the Home Boards lose out on revenue if Associate nations play the practice matches, instead of a team registered under that Home Board. For example, the BCCI would lose out on revenue if England plays their practice matches on tour to India against Afghanistan, instead of the Board President’s XI team. It also deprives the young home cricketers of a chance to impress the selectors ahead of the main series. But in my opinion, these two problems are not grave enough that they should stall the potential progress of cricket as a sport.

Over the last few days, I have had another couple of ideas in my mind. One of them is to organise a few big-team tournaments in the smaller countries, e.g. ICC Knock Out Tournament of 2000, which was held at Nairobi, Kenya. I would love to see every alternate Champions Trophy and every alternate World Twenty20 Championships held at smaller cricketing countries. There are a number of benefits of this. One, this will definitely help in improvement of infrastructure at those places and allow better facilities to that country’s cricket team in future. Two, the best way to popularise a sport in a new territory, in my opinion, is to take the best practitioners of the sport to that territory, and allow them to showcase the sport in the best of lights over there.

The other idea that I have had is a two-tier Test Championship. The ICC has already shown interest in the concept of Test Championships to lend more meaning to the game of Test cricket. My solution would just involve adding another tier to that Test Championship to help the game grow. In the ICC Inter Continental Cup, where the Associate nations play First Class cricket, 7 teams took part in 2009-10, including a Zimbabwe XI that wanted to get a bit experience before their return to Test cricket this year. The winner of this tournament was Afghanistan, with Scotland, Zimbabwe and the three-time defending champions Ireland taking the next three spots. So, apart from Ireland, there are a few other Associates as well, who look very promising for the future of our sport, and can be included in the two-tier Test Championships.

Test Cricket

My last solution involves integration of ICC’s current plan of a Test Championship as well as the ICC Inter Continental Championships. There are 105 members recognised by the ICC – 10 Full Members, 35 Associate Members and 60 Affiliate Members. A further 24 non-members are under constant ICC scanner to be enrolled as Affiliate Members. If this plan of Two-tier Test Championships is planned, organised, and executed properly, in a few years’ time, we could have at least 35-40 of these member countries (including all of the Associates and a few Affiliates) play First Class cricket at various levels, with a real chance of breaking into the top-level by the process of promotion and relegation.

As it stands today, 15 Associate / Affiliate members have already had a chance to participate in the Inter Continental Cups over its various seasons, which even includes territories where you wouldn’t know cricket existed, like Cayman Islands!

The Need to Dream

The reason why I think a Two-Tier Test Championship (and Multi-Tiered in future) is necessary for the game is to give the lesser Associates and Affiliates a chance to dream big about competing at the biggest stage called Test Cricket. Afghanistan was once in Division 5 of ICC’s World Cricket League. But they knew that they could still qualify for the World Cup 2011 if they won or ended up as Runners-up in all the subsequent league matches they play. And thus, they had a dream! This dream was possible only because they could see a way of fulfilling it. And they almost accomplished their dream, missing out by a very small margin during the World Cup Qualifiers, having zoomed up through the lower leagues.

How will cricket see sustained development in these places if youngsters do not dream of becoming cricketers? I come from India, a country that stands at about the 140th rank in FIFA’s team rankings. As a 10-year old, I only played cricket and dreamt of becoming a cricketer. Football never crossed my mind as a serious sporting career because of my country’s low profile in that sport. In my country, as things stand, an average footballer will never achieve anything big, and football as a career is feasible for only those who are extraordinarily talented and have a decent chance of making it to the European Leagues.

A lot of countries have a low profile in cricket too, which the ICC must better. When the profiles of these Associate countries in cricket increase, and they see a realistic chance of playing at the highest level of our sport, the youngsters there will be bold enough to think and dream of a career in cricket. There will be more number of cricket professionals, as there are in Ireland today.

The performance of Ireland in the World Cup 2011 has given ICC a chance to work on developing the sport further and taking it to new shores. It has made ICC see beyond its traditional big-powers and gauge the level of development amongst its smaller members. I dearly hope and pray that ICC does not let go of this chance, and for once, takes a step that would benefit our sport rather than just its coffers!

(Note: I have purposely not made any reference to development of cricket through ODIs and Twenty20s in this post. The reason is this - I believe that these two formats of the game, particularly the smallest one, are the best vehicles to spread the game in far corners of the earth.

Soulberry from The Cricket Watcher's Journal puts it well when he says "T20 is the best vehicle for it provides a pleasure factor with the least debate in a new recipient's mind. The process of acculturization employs what is available to create a context - the desire for fun outing that doesn't consume or encroach upon existing vitals and the clarity of simplicity which helps acceptability because there are no tedious debates they have to understake in their minds over Cricket. And all you need is a park and a TV camera cabled up to an OB van to get started with T20."

However, my dream extends beyond the growth of merely the shorter formats of the game in these lands. I, as already stated, would love to see Test cricket take wings and spread just as much. That is why the solutions offered in this post are all related to Test cricket and First Class cricket. The Twenty20 format is bound to grow without a lot of effort from the ICC. Test cricket's growth will require effort.

There is a good chance that ICC may rest on it laurels of having spread cricket wide just on the basis of popularising Twenty20 cricket everywhere. However, that is not what I want to see ICC stop at. Hence, this post makes no reference to Limited Overs Cricket of any form.)

5 comments:

Govind Raj said...

Shridhar, like it or not, Test Cricket can't be spread to associate nations easily. It is easier to put a T-20 Team in place. Assembling a Team that will consistently last 50 overs is tougher. But getting teams to bat out days together against reasonable quality attacks is the most difficult task.

So the only way to promote Cricket in uncharted territories i9s through T-20. I really don't like to see many Test Nations popping up and people like Jayavardena and Gambhir making scores of 450 and 500 in test Cricket. Test Cricket needs to be kept on a pedestal and teams should 'EARN' the status.

By all means, promote T-20 in far off places. May be that is 'The Future'

Shridhar Jaju said...

Govind, I agree spreading Test cricket will not be easy. But that does not mean it cannot be done. The Associates play First Class cricket amongst themselves, and a lot of their players feature in Domestic competitions in England and Australia.

Again, I agree that Test Cricket should be kept on a pedestal. That is why I never said that the top league of cricket's Test playing teams should be increased beyond 10. Maybe, we could even have it cut down to 8. But there should be leagues below this Elite Test-playing league where teams compete in "First Class Cricket" (mind you, I am not saying Test cricket) and the top teams of this league should be allowed to face off against the bottom teams of a higher league for promotion / relegation.

If the lower ranked teams are good enough, they will be able to fight it out against the higher ranked teams and EARN their promotion. If there are only 8 teams on top of the Test league, one can be reasonably assured that they are not likely to be pushovers. The scores of 450 and 500 that you dread are achievable when there is a mismatch. Playing an Elite league reduces the chance of a mismatch.

Again, as I said, the nature of Twenty20 is such that it WILL spread out to far off places without much trouble. The challenge is with Test cricket. Can we make it grow? And do we WANT TO make it grow? I want to see it grow, and hence these ideas.

Keith Livingstone said...

An excellent and well written piece Shridhar. And I couldn't agree more.

I'm glad you seem to be on the side of the Associate Nations. Support from those in major cricketing nations is most welcome.
We have just heard in the last few days that Pakistan will be playing Ireland in two ODIs in May. That is very good news. However, I still believe that the only way that Ireland, and others, will progress is to be involved in Test match cricket.
In the last few years in Northern Ireland I have seen playing, amongst others, Lara, Kallis, Vaughan, Strauss, Swann, Harbajhan and of course the little master Sachin. I have felt privilged to have watched such players at the top of their game. Having spoken to some of the Irish players I know they feel the same. Welcome as seeing these players was I would have love to have watched them in a Test scenario.

I, of course, can look at this from an Irish cricket perspective only. Other countries could have claims to Test cricket but I feel that Ireland have shown over the last few years that they could make the step up.

Many Irish players play County Cricket in England and (despite England poaching some of our best players) the younger players are being encouraged by playing nations such as India, England etc.and the U19s are producing a lot of interesting talent. We have an excellent coach in Phil Simmons and support from both sides of the political and geographical border.

Our claim for Test cricket comes with a few caveats however. Investment would have to be made in the Irish cricketing infrastructure with regard to a Test venue. The grounds are perfectly suitable for ODIs and Twenty20s but are not up to what I would call a Test cricket arena. As well as the financial aspect the ICC would have to realise that time to adjust would be required, say a period of 4 years. This would give the players a chance to learn a game that would be quite different from any they have played before. I remember watching the Twenty20 tournament held in Belfast a few years back and the standard of play was appalling! The players couldn't seem to grasp a style of play that was alien to them. Ireland, Scotland, The Netherlands etc had at the time no players who had played in a Twenty20 before. This will be the same with Test cricket. Bangladesh are only now beginning to 'get' the Test cricket game.

I can understand those who claim that too many teams mean too much Test cricket being played by the top nations. We are not asking for an Ashes style 5 test series but a two test series against a top nation every year shouldnt be too difficult to schedule. The ICC could set the ball rolling by announcing that a new Test nation will be 'created' every four years.

Cricket is a progressive sport and with Nations such as Afghanistan making huge strides its only a matter of time before some Associates make the jump.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

Shridhar Jaju said...

Keith, firstly welcome to this blog and I am glad to see that my views have been read by someone associated with Cricket Ireland.

Let me assure you that I am just one of the many who feel that in time, the Associate nations should get a good representation amongst major teams.

Ireland have indeed made a good claim for a Test berth, and was best represented over the period of this World Cup 2011. I think we all agree that Ireland has made rapid progress in cricket.

You are right that new 'Test' teams would require time to adjust. There is no disputing that. Bangladesh is just getting comfortable with the format after playing it for more than a decade. In fact, my country India, played Test cricket for 20 years before winning a Test match, and today stands at World No. 1 in Test rankings.

I just hope ICC can take the requisite measures to spread the game amongst nations / territories who actually want Test cricket, like Ireland. And once they do take these measures, I hope they show enough common sense and patience in assessing the progress made. In time, I hope that I will see an Irish Test tour of India and be able to watch a match live from the stadium!

Russ said...

Shridhar, this is a well thought out post, but it lacks for two things. Firstly, cricket has a unique financial structure. The bulk of full members make money from two sources: ICC tournament revenue, and hosting India (plus, to an extent England and Australia). Because of the latter, under no circumstances will they opt for a tiered system, and risk relegation (and impoverishment).

Secondly, too much time is spent worrying whether a team is "competitive". Ireland could easily match Bangladesh in test cricket, and probably New Zealand and West Indies too. They may never (or very rarely) beat India. If Ireland ascended to "full member" status under the present structure, they would play a lot of games against better opposition, lose (a lot), and be limited to a few measly games here or there for lack of financial strength. A two tier system doesn't change that - in a sense, we already have a two-tier system, all you are doing is moving the line (as, incidentally, would adding Ireland to the list of full members).

Cricket needs broader reform, to stabilise the finances of its weaker members, to decrease the number of mismatches, to increase the meaning of individual matches or series, and to make it possible to expand the number of teams playing test cricket without so much hand-wringing. My solution, which I wrote about last year, tries to do this in two ways: firstly by splitting the calendar in half, two years for traditional bilateral series, organised as members see fit, and two years for a properly constructed test championship with qualifiers.

The reason a test championship is better are two-fold. Firstly, by playing all those games through the ICC the revenue can be distributed fairly and more equitably, which removes the need for top teams to tour smaller nations in the other years. Secondly, a system of qualifiers allows weaker teams the chance to test themselves against the best regularly without too many mismatches, before putting them in a competitive tier for the championship proper. Whereas with permanent tiers a team could remain forever mired in the lower division, which is not very different to where they are now.

SAVE OUR TIGER!