Tuesday, May 15, 2007

world cup woe #6 - cricket at a crossroads

A couple of weeks ago, we (Omar and I) had a few lengthy discussions about why it is that we found this World Cup so boring. It must be understood that we are a pair of die-hard fans who grew up on the game; fans whose earliest cricket-watching memories are those of Imran Khan lifting the coveted trophy in 1992. So if we are left horribly unsatisfied by the sport’s premier event, then how can we expect the Scots and the Dutchmen of the world to chance upon the tournament on TV and suddenly start giving a shit about the sport?

Is it even possible to spread the game of cricket?

Therein lies the strange vicious cycle-esque dilemma. Imagine, for a moment, that the ICC isn’t a money-grubbing pack of wolves, and then ponder its dilemma about the nature of the game itself. Should it try to spread the game to all corners of the world that are even remotely interested, or should it maintain cricket’s status as a strange exclusive club of 9 or 10 countries and leave it at that?

Here’s the catch. The more countries the ICC tries to include, the more boring the World Cup, and the more frustrated people like us get. And the fewer countries it includes, the more it alienates the rest of the world.

Where does this leave ODI cricket?

ODI cricket is at a funny stage in its life. A stage at which it needs to decide its identity once and for all. If it is to stick around, then countries need to be granted ODI status the same way they are given test status, otherwise it is just making it more painful for the rest of us. Besides, just because these teams are in the World Cup doesn’t mean their countries are watching. Take a survey of Canadians and ask them if they even know about their 3 Cricket World Cup appearances. Then ask them how proudly they all watched their team get knocked out in the first round of their only FIFA World Cup. For that matter, Pakistan has won four Hockey World Cups and I’ve never seen a single hockey match from start to finish.

So the way to win these countries over is not to invite them to a boring party, but to leave them at the window looking in on a proverbial bash and trying desperately to get fake IDs. Cricket is an unusually technical game, and the closest it has ever come to being accessible to the casual viewer is twenty20. And let's face it, twenty20 is the only form of the sport that is likely to spread to countries that don’t currently play the game.

Can twenty20 be cricket's savior?

The immense popularity of 20-over-a-side cricket is still a bit disconcerting to the traditionalists amongst us, but its appeal is understandable. It offers sustained excitement and a shorter game that one can actually watch without taking a day off from work. Most importantly however, the shorter time-span makes the game a great leveler. It is way easier for a minnow to win a shorter game against an established team. So if minnows want to play, they should play twenty20s and leave ODIs to the big boys.

So does this mean the rise of the twenty20 and the death of the ODI as we know it? Well, if it does, then so be it. Everything must evolve. As the World Cup and also a recent Cricinfo article showed, fewer and fewer ODIs are tight contests these days. As far as tactics go, there isn't a whole lot of mystery left. Teams know how to win from a winning position, so that a 7-hour game is often decided in the first 45 minutes. And if this trend continues, then what’s the point? This isn't even something we can blame on the ICC or the television companies, as we have become so wont to do these days.

The ICC often comes under fire for packing in tournaments close together, but it's interesting to note that nobody is complaining about the twenty20 World Cup which is to be held in South Africa in September. The cricketing community is yearning for change, excitement, and something to look forward to. Perhaps we are quietly confident, after the series of disappointments that the ODI World Cup became, that the shorter version will be the explosive revival our sport desperately needs.

Cricket needs to either change as rapidly as the world around it - with increased globalization, shorter attention spans, and less leisure time to watch sports - or else stubbornly refuse to ever change and stay put firmly where it is. This slow crawl into the 21st century is neither here nor there, and it’s leaving us all frustrated.

Co-authored by Omar.

For more World Cup Woes, click here.

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