In the lead up to the ICC World Cup 2019 that starts Thursday, a noted cricket writer was asked what he looked forward to the most. “The bit where people moan about how it's only a 10-team World Cup before going on to just watch the tournament,” he said.
The statement captures an uneasy compromise that is the 2019 World Cup. Those who devote their time to the sport are incontrovertibly hooked. But many of them are dismayed, feeling a sense of powerlessness even as they enjoy some of the best cricket. For the first time in 23 years, the ICC Cricket World Cup will have no more than 10 teams.
With 48 matches spread over 46 days, this is the longest ICC World Cup since the one held in 2007. But it has six fewer teams than the 2007 tournament and four fewer than the last two editions viz. 2011 and 2015. In its current form, the World Cup is not so easy to differentiate from the now-defunct Champions Trophy. After all, the 2017 competition had eight of the ten teams participating this summer!
Ever since the 10-team World Cup was confirmed four years ago, much has been said against this 'blow' to cricket’s expansion drive. Non-Test playing nations look forward to the tournament to make their presence felt. Outside the World Cup, very few options exist for them to capture the cricket-watching public's attention. But, informed by the ICC World Cup 2007 when India and Pakistan were knocked out in the group stage, the International Cricket Council (ICC) has been keen to secure its own financial interest. Never again, it seems to have been almost vowed, will the most lucrative markets for cricket be denied their expected returns – the current format ensures nine matches for each participant. There will be no early departures.
Under the garb of meritocracy, the ICC argues that only the best should play the World Cup. And yet, the tournament’s most scintillating memories are of matches that saw the apple cart being upset for a big team. India was arguably the first to suffer at the hands of a ‘minnow’, when Sri Lanka emerged victors in a head-to-head contest at the 1979 World Cup. Zimbabwe, Kenya, Bangladesh, Ireland, and Afghanistan are among the few teams to have spiced up the tournament with unforeseen results since then. Four of those five teams went on to achieve Test status.
After years of giving smaller participants a seat at the table, the ICC seems to have caved in to the economic argument. Having repeatedly changed the format for over the last three decades, the governing body seems to have finally found a structure that looks set to endure. In fact, it was at the 1999 World Cup in the United Kingdom that the ICC seemingly woke up to the golden goose it had come to own. For the first time, the tournament’s organisation had been overseen by the ICC.
Ever since, the governing body has sought to milk the sport of every possible penny. Boosted by the onset of an economic boom in India, the game’s multiplying financial rewards laid the path towards a 10-team World Cup. It was inevitable that greed would be fostered once cricket’s commercial realities changed. India, England, and Australia are the biggest beneficiaries of this shift.
Although the administrative takeover of the ICC by the ‘The Big Three’ was overturned, those three boards still garner a major chunk of the revenues. In the current cycle (2016-23) of broadcasting rights, India’s (£320 million) share is nearly triple that of England. In this period, all major tournaments have also been awarded to the trio; it remains unlikely that the West Indies will host a major ICC event soon since television timings do not suit Indian viewers.
Yet, arguably, never before has cricket been more popular. According to the ICC, there were around 3.2 million applicants for the 800,000 tickets available to attend this summer’s World Cup. The number of applicants is the same amount (£3.2 million) that the winning team will earn. While the exclusive tournament will help its participants make more money than ever before, but it is also the first World Cup that will not host all the Full Members i.e. those with Test status.
The caravan rolls on regardless. The upcoming World Cup promises to be among the most closely contested, with many finding it difficult to predict who will lift the trophy. England seems to be the most popular choice. Not that it will be remembered, but on June 11, as the tournament is in the throes of a long round-robin stage, it will be a year since the fateful encounter that saw Scotland stun England for the very first time.
Unfortunately, the Scots have not qualified for the closed door event that the latest edition of the ICC World Cup is. Nobody will have to consider a possible repeat of that shock result at any point over the next six weeks. Perhaps, very few will care. But, by securing the interest of the richest teams, the World Cup has lost some of its magic.
Priyansh is a writer based in New Delhi. He tweets @Privaricate