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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Last of the World Cups?

The football World Cup is going to complete a century in six years. But the cricket World Cup, not even half a century old, is staring at an uncertain future, writes Pratik.

By Pratik

Lacklustre start would be an understatement to describe the way the ICC men’s Cricket World Cup got underway at Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad on Thursday. No, we are not talking about the quality of cricket. It was obviously top-class. A world record was set in the first innings itself when every England cricketer got into double figures. It had never happened before in the history of ODI cricket. Then New Zealand opener Devon Conway and youngster Rachin Ravindra made England’s 282 look like 182. One can hardly imagine a better beginning to the quadrennial extravaganza.

But we are talking about the adulation the duo and their teammates deserved and did not get because fans did not fill the stands. Mind you, the inaugural match was being played at the Board president’s own city, which is also our cricket-loving Prime Minister’s home. The show was on… in the stadium named after the latter. The same venue is scheduled to host the India versus Pakistan match in ten days and the grand finale will also be played there.

Has the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) overestimated the number of cricket-lovers in Ahmedabad then? Let’s dig deeper.

In case you missed it, this World Cup had no opening ceremony. Any sporting event of global stature holds a gala opening ceremony. Of course, nothing matches the Olympics in this regard but cricket World Cup organisers of this subcontinent never thought it was dispensable. Cricket was yet to become a huge industry when India and Pakistan jointly hosted the World Cup in 1987, so we can forget about that edition. But when India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka hosted the 1996 edition, there was a huge opening ceremony at Eden Gardens, Kolkata. A lot of money was spent to organise a laser show, which was supposed to be an unprecedented spectacle in India. Strong wind from the Ganges turned it into a damp squib, and an unsatisfied local media alleged later that the pitch got damaged because of the stage put up for the opening ceremony. That is the reason even Aravinda de Silva could turn the ball like Muttiah Muralitharan on that pitch. It could be true or false, but nobody can deny the intent of the then BCCI president Jagmohan Dalmiya to make the World Cup as big as he could. Even the 2011 edition had an elaborate opening ceremony at Dhaka’s Bangabandhu National Stadium.

This time round, the world’s richest cricket board is not sharing the responsibility of hosting with neighbouring countries. Why then, did it not arrange for an opening ceremony? Is it because the board does not see the 50-over game as a cash cow and hence, did not want to spend a penny on embellishment? It is hard not to think along those lines because every year the best of Bollywood is roped in for a glitzy opening of the Indian Premier League (IPL). BCCI owes most of its riches to that franchise league.

Rest assured that we have not seen the last of empty stands in the World Cup. The galleries will wear a deserted look at more than one venue in matches not involving India. The fans cannot be summarily blamed for that. Here’s why.

Deciding to do away with the opening ceremony could have given the benefit of the doubt had BCCI not made a mess of other things. For example, announcing the schedule of the biggest event only 100 days before the start is unthinkable in any sport. But BCCI, under the leadership of Jay Shah, has done just that. Generally, the schedule of a World Cup is announced about a year in advance. The schedule of next year’s World Twenty20 to be held in the Caribbean islands and the USA, was announced last month. It is not difficult to understand the reason. People from multiple countries are supposed to go to the host country. Unless they book rooms, flight tickets etc well ahead of time, the prices would go through the roof and beyond a point, and even money would not buy what one needs. Going by people’s complaints on social media, that has indeed been the case for many in this World Cup. Who can find out how many England and New Zealand fans wanted to be at the ground on Thursday, but could not because of BCCI’s laziness?

The World Cup is an event owned by the International Cricket Council, but it is no secret that ICC does not have the same influence over world cricket that FIFA has over world football. In the last few years, BCCI has dictated terms in the ICC. In another time or another sport, this lackadaisical approach could have resulted in the parent body shifting the World Cup elsewhere. But in reality, Shah is so powerful (despite being secretary, not the president, of BCCI) that a few months back he declared ICC Future Tours Programme would have a bigger window for the IPL in the coming years. It was an announcement only ICC has the right to make, but Might is always right. ICC could not say anything to the man. Therefore, this all-powerful man has to take the blame for this mess.

The problem with all-powerful men is, they do not seek anybody’s advice and make mistakes in a heap. As if the late announcement was not enough, the schedule was riddled with mistakes. Kolkata, for example, was given the responsibility of hosting the England versus Pakistan match on the day of Kali Puja. Anybody having a rudimentary idea of Kolkata would know that it is impossible to organise an international match there on that day because even though it’s not Durga Puja, it is a big enough festival to keep the police force busy. Clearly, the Cricket Association of Bengal was not consulted before scheduling the match. Similar problems prompted changes in the schedule for matches to be held in Hyderabad. The funniest thing is, the BCCI, run by the son of Gujarat Shah, didn’t even realise that an India versus Pakistan match cannot be held in Ahmedabad on the day Navaratri starts. Such mistakes resulted in almost ten matches being rescheduled, further messing up the plans of enthusiastic cricket lovers.

Official ticket seller, BookMyShow app shows tickets almost sold out for New Zealand-England match

The biggest mess, however, is in the sale of tickets. While the England versus New Zealand match was on, many people on X (formerly Twitter) wondered how the stands could be so deserted, when the official ticket seller BookMyShow was showing it was almost sold out. As it is, the ticket prices are too high for many. Moreover, some had to wait in online queues for three to four hours for tickets, only to go empty-handed. Till the time of writing this, ICC did not state how many tickets were on sale and how many have already been sold. On their part, BookMyShow wrote on X a few days back that they had a limited number of tickets. Behind this scarcity and opacity, perhaps there is duplicity. More than one media outlet reported ahead of the inaugural match that Ahmedabad BJP was going to bring 40,000 women to the match. They had been invited via WhatsApp. It could have been called a nice gesture but it is unclear how many showed up. Asianet TV channel showed a few ladies outside the stadium, who said they had indeed been brought by BJP to watch the ‘India-Pakistan match’. They looked surprised when the reporter told them the match was between England and New Zealand.

One could justifiably ask, why host big World Cup matches such as the opening tie and the final at a venue where most people are only interested in one contest – India versus Pakistan? The answer has to be found beyond the boundary. Veteran journalist Sharda Ugra has spelt it out in her recent long article for The Caravan, titled “Shah’s playground: BJP’s Control of Cricket in India”. But that is for another day. For now, it is more important to understand that this World Cup looks set to fall apart as much because of inefficiency as reluctance.

The 50-over game is not something cricket administrators love these days because it is the T20s, the franchise leagues to be precise, that are raking in the moolah. That is why the Big Three (India, Australia, England) are not trying to limit either the number of franchise leagues or their duration. On the contrary, the BCCI is making the IPL longer with sanction from a helpless ICC. Simultaneously, the ODIs are being allowed to become boring. Since 2010, repeated rule changes have made an ODI just a longer version of T20. Two balls from each end have killed the art of reverse swing even on subcontinental pitches. Obscene shortening of boundaries aka T20 has forced spinners to be defensive most of the time. Life of batters has become much easier. Some kind of field restriction or the other is there throughout the innings and shorter boundaries mean less opportunity for fielders to chase down the ball, less running for batters. So, they can conserve energy for longer periods. As a result, 350-plus scores are not a rarity anymore. Scoring a double century is also becoming a lot more common. The first one was scored by Sachin Tendulkar only in 2010 but there have been nine more since then. Rohit Sharma alone has three double centuries. Understandably, it is not making spectators love the game more. A boundary every over and a lot of sixes can be amusing in a match that runs for three to four hours. But it becomes boring when one innings of a match is that long. Bowlers as cannon fodder all day long do not make a spectacle. That is why attendance at ODIs has been dwindling all over the world.

Even players are losing interest in this form of the game. They can earn a lot more money by playing franchise cricket and with increasing fixtures there, it is not possible for anyone to play three types of cricket round the year. This is why ODI lost a phenomenal cricketer like Ben Stokes last year. A lot of persuasion brought him back for this World Cup but he has already missed the opening match with a niggle. Nobody knows if he will continue playing ODIs after the World Cup. India skipper Rohit Sharma and No. 1 batter Virat Kohli have also skipped a lot of ODIs in the last one year. They did not even play every match in the last series before the World Cup.

Mark Nicholas, the newly-elected president of Marylebone Cricket Club, has been the most honest administrator about his tribe’s dislike for cricket. This week he told ESPN Cricinfo website, “We believe strongly that ODIs should be World Cups only. We think it’s difficult bilaterally now to justify them. They’re not filling grounds in a lot of countries. And there is a power at the moment to T20 cricket that is almost supernatural.”

Needless to say, there can be no World Cup for a format that is played only once in four years. MCC, the world’s oldest cricket club, are not the lawmakers of cricket anymore but has considerable clout in English cricket. It is not unjustified to think the cricket board of his country thinks along the same lines. Since the England and Wales Cricket Board is part of the Big Three, it is an alarming statement for ODIs.

Many believe only the BCCI can save the format and this World Cup could be the turning point. But the mishandling of the tournament does not indicate BCCI’s willingness to be the saviour. The centenary edition of the football World Cup is just seven years away and the product is still going strong. In fact, it looks even stronger now after the winter edition in Qatar last year. But the future of the cricket World Cup, which is yet to turn 50, looks dodgier than ever. It is sad that soon after the start of the 2023 edition, 2027 looks like a bridge too far.

(The author is an independent journalist who worked on the sports desk of newspapers till 2020.)

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