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By Peter Della Penna
If cricket administrators around the world are serious about making the game grow, they sure have a funny way of showing it. In reports on June 1 by several news agencies, the BCCI announced they will not be sending a team to the 2010 Asian Games, scheduled to take place from November 12-27 in Guangzhou, China.
The BCCI’s official excuse is that they can’t send a team because of “international commitments” while the report says that India is due to host New Zealand in November.
The report also makes note of the fact that Pakistan just announced a series against South Africa in the UAE during which two Test matches will be occurring over the same dates as the Asian Games. It then goes on to state that Sri Lanka is due to host West Indies in November while at the same time Bangladesh is in line to square off against Zimbabwe. Despite the fact that India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh all pledged to send their best teams when an announcement was made in May of 2009 about the debut of an eight-team Twenty20 cricket tournament due to take place at this year’s Asian Games, it appears that administrators from all four countries all came down with a bout of amnesia. It means that China and three other qualifying countries will have to wait and see who the tournament will actually consist of now that one or more of the promised teams will not be playing.
It was only a few months ago that Adam Gilchrist and Steve Waugh were jumping on the Twenty20 for 2020 Summer Olympics bandwagon, with Waugh quoted as saying, “If you want to globalize the game then you have to look at including countries like China and the United States, and getting cricket into the Olympics will fast-track that move.”
Before cricket can make a giant leap into the Olympics, it needs to take baby steps by appearing in other global multi-sport carnival events such as the Asian Games, the Commonwealth Games and the Pan-American Games. Yet, for the second time in recent history, cricket’s administrators have taken the short-sighted path towards immediate cash dividends for a handful of boards rather than a long-term path of growth to more nations.
The 2007 World Cup didn’t produce too many feel-good stories, but one of the few was the success of Associate level Ireland in advancing past the group stage thanks to a victory over Pakistan. Bangladesh, long-maligned for supposedly being introduced into the Test cricket fold too soon, also scored a major upset by knocking out India.
Instead of seeing two outsiders advancing to the Super Eights as reason to cheer for the growth of the game, this was seen as an utter catastrophe because it deprived television networks in the subcontinent of making maximum advertising revenue from an anticipated India vs. Pakistan matchup in the next phase. As a result, the format of the 2011 World Cup was revised to make sure the balance of power was in favor of the eight heavyweights. The amount of teams shrunk from 16 to 14, with two Associate qualifiers axed from the fold. It also meant that instead of having four groups of four teams competing, the first round will feature two groups of seven, meaning that it will be a truly miraculous feat for an Associate team to advance to the second round.
This goes to preserve the reality that the ICC is the original franchise system in world cricket. While Lalit Modi is hailed as a visionary for introducing the privately owned franchise system model into cricket through the IPL, a de facto franchise system has existed long before the Rajasthan Royals and Kolkata Knight Riders came around. The cricket boards of the Test nations and their relationship as Full Members of the ICC ensures this. In the professional era of the past two decades, cricketers have gained their major source of income from playing for their country’s national team, which is exactly the opposite of how soccer has functioned for over a century.
For an American sports league, one of the major arguments against expansion is that it can create a diluted talent pool as well as cheapen statistics. This has come into view for cricket as well, which is one reason why the proposed Test championship has started to gain momentum. It would reinforce the appearance that the cricket boards of the professionalized Full Member teams conduct themselves as a non-competitive franchise system monopoly while Associate and Affiliate level amateur teams exist in an alternate universe.
By avoiding the Asian Games, the Asian bloc of Full Member ICC nations will be continuing the segregation of cricket, keeping it as a game for the elite instead of a game for the masses like soccer. Despite the often quoted statistic that cricket is the second most played sport in the world behind soccer, the fact remains that it is only played on a serious level by nine nations, one of which accounts for one sixth of the world’s total population, and one geographic territorial island region. On the other hand, soccer is played in just about every single country around the world.
The 2008 Summer Olympics featured teams from 204 nations going for medal glory in Beijing. The 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou will feature 45 nations. It would have been wise for India to make a good impression at this event to not only rally patriotism for their own country about the possibility of a gold medal in cricket, but would have inspired countless other nations to produce teams that could compete with India for a gold medal one day.
The 1992 Dream Team is a perfect example of this. USA’s Men’s Basketball Gold Medal winners annihilated all teams that stood in their path at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona that year thanks to a lineup of living legends including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Clyde Drexler, John Stockton, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley. The gulf in talent between USA and the other countries at the event was immense which makes it astonishing to believe that by 2004, USA could not even manage to make the Gold Medal game in Athens as Argentina beat them in the semifinals on their way to topping Italy in the final. Even more astonishing than that is the fact that neither Argentina nor Italy qualified to participate in basketball at the Barcelona Games in 1992 as part of a 12-team field, but a dozen years later they were one and two on the medal stand. Countries like Greece, Lithuania, Spain, Australia and China, as well as Argentina and Italy, owe a large debt of gratitude to USA and to the Dream Team for the amount of global exposure they brought to the game of basketball which helped improve each country’s approach to the game. This includes participation levels, infrastructure and overall funding from private and public resources.
Unfortunately, some of cricket’s most important administrators are so narrow-minded that they neglect to understand the true value of sending teams to an event like the Asian Games. Even more dispiriting, but not at all surprising, is the fact that the ICC is standing idle instead of stepping in to encourage India and the other major Asian nations to seize this opportunity and use it as a vehicle to spread the game. It’s not farfetched to think that a Chinese kid might have seen Virender Sehwag batting in Guangzhou and gone home pleading with his parents to buy him a cricket bat so he could play the game too. But that won’t be happening now.
While cricket is not included as an official medal sport at the 2015 Pan-American Games due to take place in Toronto, there are reports that it will be played as an exhibition sport in an attempt to bring awareness to the game and raise interest among the more than 40 countries expected to be present as part of the event. With India setting a bad precedent now by not participating at the 2010 Asian Games in China, it only sets the stage for the West Indies Cricket Board to prevent individual island nations from fielding their best players for a potential Twenty20 tournament involving other nations like the USA and Canada at the 2015 Pan-American Games.
Another strike against cricket’s chances for making it into the 2020 Summer Olympics is the fact that it disappeared from the Commonwealth Games docket after an appearance at the 1998 event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. This is even more incredible to believe since 2002 and 2006 editions took place Manchester, England and Melbourne, Australia while the 2010 Commonwealth Games will be taking place this October with more than 70 nations competing for medals in dozens of sports in Delhi, India. Three straight multi-sport carnival events in three major cricket playing nations with no shortage of cricket facilities on offer to utilize yet no cricket has been played.
According to a Cricinfo article from January 23, 2006, the decision of whether or not to include cricket at the 2010 Commonwealth Games rested with the BCCI. “The BCCI does not want to play 20-20 cricket in the Commonwealth Games,” said BCCI secretary N Srinivasan. “We think that format should not be encouraged.” Two years later, Srinivasan showed how much he believed the format should not be encouraged by shelling out $91 million for the Chennai Super Kings IPL franchise.
By not participating in the 2010 Asian Games, the BCCI is failing in its responsibility to help spread cricket both in Asia and on a worldwide scale. This decision will make the goal of introducing Twenty20 cricket into the 2020 Summer Olympics much more difficult and will only serve to keep the sport confined to the elitist Full Member boards.
[Views expressed in this column are those of the author.]