Is cricket really growing as a global sport?

Is cricket ‘really’ growing as a global sport?

Different people will have different answers to this question.

An Indian cricket administrator or a commentator or anyone associated with the IPL will answer with a resounding yes. They will then embellish their argument with a stream of stats – indicating how cricket is growing.

Ask someone in the West Indies and he won’t be so sure. However, he will bear witness to the growth of other sports – the likes of basketball- and mourn that this growth has resulted in the decline of cricket in the Caribbean.

Speak to the handful of cricketers keeping the sport alive in a country like Kenya and they will ruefully talk of missed opportunities – how the sport failed to capitalize on the wave of popularity generated by the World Cup semi-final run.

The geographical distribution of the answers is actually the best indicator of whether the sport is growing globally or not. But we will come to that later.

We will first look at the stream of stats, which indicate why Indian administrators think that cricket, is growing.

These stats are about revenues, broadcast numbers and player earnings.

Cricket must surely be growing, if the Indian cricket team has the richest shirt sponsorship deal in sport, if the number of countries seeing the World Cup live is growing exponentially and if the per hour earning of an IPL superstar is more than what his English Premier League counterpart makes. ICC’s associate membership is also growing.

Surely the game is reaching more corners of the planet than it ever reached during the heydays of the British Empire.

Cricket is growing and there was absolutely no need to add a “really” to the topic.

But before we give a conclusive verdict, lets try and answer a few more questions.

How many native fans (we are not counting the Patels and the Sardarji’s spread all over the globe and others of their ilk from the test-playing nations) whose countries are not playing in the world cup watch the cricket regularly?

How often does cricket news make it to ESPN.com or CNN.com?

How many cricketers are global sports icons and endorse products globally?

How well is China doing in the sport?

How many new nations have made the breakthrough- of becoming good enough to play with the big boys- in the last 20 years? For cricket, that would mean gaining test-playing status.

The answer to all these questions is zero or none or something close to that.

The last question is the important and most telling of cricket’s underperformance.

The test playing pool remains the same. The last deserving entrant was Sri Lanka almost 30 years back. And the Lankans had been playing the sport for at least 50 years before that. Zimbabwe and Bangladesh have also joined the club but have done little to justify the membership.

Things at the associate level also have pretty much remained the same. The likes of Holland, Hong Kong, Scotland and Bermuda have been around forever. There are no new nations making the break-through even at the associate level. And that has to be considered a more robust yardstick to measure the spread of any sport.

The China question is also important. Whatever matters in the world, is taken seriously by the Chinese, including everything considered worthwhile in sport. The dragon nation takes it up with manic fervor and becomes an important player in no time. That we haven’t heard of China and cricket, beyond the “Chinaman” is proof enough that Cricket isn’t worthy enough yet.

How do the other sports perform on the same parameters?

Lets not even waste our time with the likes of football and tennis. Lets look at a sport like basketball. The field is just getting stronger. There are new powers like Turkey. Others like Argentina, Spain and Italy have also gotten better. Russia declined but these new powers took their place. Basketball also passes the China test with flying colours thanks to Yao Ming. It has global superstars like Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal. India is a basketball minnow and no Indian plays in the NBA but an increasing number of fans watch the sport throughout the season.

Basketball clearly has what cricket doesn’t.

The geographic distribution of the original question starts to make sense now.

Cricket is prospering in some of the test-playing nations, giving them a rose-tinted view of how the sport is doing globally. India, Sri Lanka, England and Australia belong to this category.

Other members of this club have fallen on hard times. The West Indies have declined beyond unimaginable proportions. And no one has stepped in to take their place, making the sport weaker overall. This is tantamount to a de-globalization of the sport.

Others with promise have also withered away. Kenya looked good but their huge step forward in the 2003 World Cup was followed by a hundred small steps backwards.

The decline of these old powers and lack of suitable replacements conclusively proves that cricket isn’t growing globally. Because if cricket were a truly global sport, then it would have helped the existing powers (at least most of them) survive and nurtured new ones to powers of strength.

It’s very simple. Everything finally comes down to revenue. A global sport creates enough wealth for everyone involved to keep the sport developing across the globe. There is enough money for the global body to support the sport in fledgling nations. FIFA might be corrupt but it is financing football infrastructure and providing equipment and coaching in poor African countries (as well as in India). How many cricket pitches has the ICC built?

A global sport also has a large enough audience; spread across countries – thereby generating sufficient revenue- to support a large pool of players. It can provide decent employment to promising players from anywhere in the world. This ensures that there is enough interest in the sport and talent is not lost.

Let me illustrate this point with a few examples.

The West Indies are struggling because youngsters are taking up other sports with better money making opportunities. The lack of infrastructure is also a problem. After the arrest of Mr. Sanford, the WICB has had no money. The contracts of international players are very average. Chris Gayle can ditch the national contact and make millions in the IPL but lesser known West Indian cricketers have no such opportunities. If there were ten professional leagues like the IPL even including ones, which paid one-tenth the salaries, then many more young West Indians would have been enticed into cricket.

Look at the contrast in football.

The tiny nation of Trinidad and Tobago has no national football league but it went to the World Cup with a team made up entirely of players playing in the lower leagues in England.

Look at basketball. Everyone cannot play in the NBA. But there are enough professional leagues around the world. A promising Indian player can make a good living playing in the Russian or Spanish or even the Turkish leagues.

Thanks to FIFA, a poor child in a war torn African nation will get to play with a proper ball on a respectable pitch and get coached by a decent coach. A promising cricketer in Kenya or Namibia will not get any such chance. Sierra Leone and Liberia will produce world-class footballers. But nothing of the sort will happen in cricket.

It is not enough for fans of newer countries to be able to watch the World Cup of a particular sport. A promising player from that country should get the coaching and infrastructure to hone his skills and then find gainful employment.

In spite of the positive indicators, cricket suffers because the growth is extremely skewed. It has grown at a massive rate in India, reaching many more homes and finding talent from the remotest corners but not so much elsewhere. The IPL is a great opportunity for lesser players to make a great living but only for the ones who come from India. The cricket boards of countries like England, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have been financially strained. As the revenue is in India, the Indian board calls the shots on most matters and limits the ICC from “really” taking the game global.

One of the prime examples of India’s interests not being aligned with ICC’s globalization missive is how the BCCI single-handedly sabotaged cricket’s chances of being included in the Olympics. The BCCI did so by refusing to participate in the Asian Games. Other sports like Squash have the full support of all the federations and the top players in their efforts to join the Olympic movement. Cricket isn’t so lucky.

The Olympics can do wonders for the globalization of a sport. There will be a new audience, more people will take up the game and revenues will be generated. By missing the Olympic opportunity, cricket just made its task much more difficult.

In spite of all its riches – in terms of money, talent and a huge audience- India also needs the sport to go global. Even they will suffer if the strength of the game deteriorates. And that is bound to happen if existing test playing nations like the West Indies and New Zealand continue to decline and new countries aren’t able to rise up to that level.

There is no money in domestic cricket and – as the recent India – WI series showed- Indians don’t have time for sub standard international opposition. The BCCI needs to take the lead in growing the sport worldwide.

It could well learn from the USA and baseball. For the longest times, the sport has been limited to the US and a handful of central and South American countries like Venezuela and Puerto Rico. Major League Baseball has done a lot to nurture the game in these small and poor nations by providing scouting, training, infrastructure and a chance to play professionally.

The sport has always been popular in Japan but thanks to the MLB the sport also has a rabid following in Korea. The rise of Korea has strengthened the game globally and found a new paying audience for the sport. Korea has lots of players in the MLB and won the World Baseball Classic.

After being dropped once, the sport has made a strong comeback in the Olympics. Thanks to the Olympics the sport is finding fans all over the place. The newest nation to make a splash was the Netherlands.

The MLB is doing all of this in spite of having a large enough domestic market to support the game. And they are not done yet. They continue to take the sport further, even going to countries where hardly anyone understands the laws of the game.

A few years back, the Pittsburgh Pirates of Major League Baseball came and scouted for pitchers in India. The number of MLB fans in India would be less than a few thousand. Undeterred, the Pirates selected two promising players and took them to the US. The two have been offered professional contracts and are currently progressing through the Pirates’ farm system. If one of them manages to play at the highest level, it could spur a new wave of interest in the sport in India.

The MLB will build on this interest by getting more teams to visit India, by building infrastructure and providing coaching to promising youngsters and increasing the number of live games shown in India.

This is how cricket needs to operate. They have found an interesting format in the form of Twenty-20 and are no longer hampered by having to teach an educated audience the merits of playing a game for five days and still ending up without a result.

In the recent NBA finals in basketball, the star performers included a German and a Puerto Rican in addition to all the resident Americans. Cricket can claim to be a truly global game when the IPL finals feature a Chinese, a Kenyan and an American.

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