The Cricket World Cup that ended this month was something of a big deal–at least on the South Asian subcontinent. India beat defending champion Australia in the quarterfinals, archenemy Pakistan in the semifinals and then frenemy Sri Lanka in the final round– thereby returning to the Indian people the trophy they coveted so much (and hadn’t won since 1983.) It was also the first Cricket World Cup final to feature two Asian teams.
Full disclosure: I don’t follow cricket. I am literate enough to know what is going on, but that is it. I do however, know a little about the culture of the game. However, if I am incorrect, please feel free to politely correct me.
There are 10 test nations (nations that play test matches): England, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, and a conglomerate of Caribbean nations and dependencies called the West Indies. To the purist, test cricket is the highest form of the sport. When you think of cricket (if you ever do), and envision the players wearing all white uniforms playing matches that last forever, then you are thinking of test cricket.
The Cricket World Cup does not feature that kind of cricket (the tournament would last a year otherwise.) Rather it has a somewhat watered down version–limited to 50 overs–called One Day International. The teams wear different colors, and a match lasts less than a day which is short for cricket. There is also an even shorter version called Twenty20, which seems to be the red-headed stepchild of the cricket world, but Steven Cohen, formerly of World Football Daily is convinced that it would do really well here in the United States. Probably because the skill set is closer than the other versions to baseball.
After every World Cup, the cricket-powers-that-be, the International Cricket Council, restructures the tournament to make it better. This is something akin to the way FIFA changed the World Cup format and qualification process. However, the ICC has just something that FIFA would never be able to do–the ICC will limit the next World Cup to only the test nations. The associate nations (the non-test nations) are kind of pissed off. This is especially bitter for Ireland, which in the past few World Cups has made some remarkable gains–and is arguably stronger than some of the test nations.
The ICC has tried to make the decision seem less appalling by turning the World Twenty20 into a biennial event. But Twenty20 is universally regarded as the lowest form of cricket, while the associate nations (the ones who don’t play test cricket) care most about the 50 over game. The ICC’s decision smacks of protectionism (particularly given Ireland’s growing strength)–a way of keeping the riffraff out of the game.
The football and rugby that we know them were refined by the British public (private) schools. Much to the consternation of the elites, the working class English and Scottish took up the game and eventually dominated. In contrast, cricket, and test cricket in particular, still has an elitist image, especially in the United States. The wearing of white (also done each year during the tennis tournament at Wimbledon), the breaks for tea, the incomprehensible lingo, and the test matches, which are confined to only a handful of nations. Everything about it smacks of British elitism, although that is less than the truth (a billion Indians can’t be wrong.) Unlike football which only requires a spherical shaped object, cricket requires specialized equipment, space to play, and a calculator to tabulate the score. Therefore, it was not as durable as football. The working class in England did not embrace it and it could not spread outside the British Empire. It should not come as a shock that all the test nations are former British colonies. (There is a great scene in the movie Maurice in which cricket features prominently. Check out the wonderful Helena Bonham-Carter cameo.)
In America, cricket–like croquet and polo–remained a sport of the country club, and therefore could never compete with its distant cousin, the much more egalitarian baseball. I am not aware of any place it is played in the United States, although I am sure it is played somewhere. Canada has a national cricket team although it is most definitely second-tier.
The ICC’s decision to limit the World Cup to the test nations is not mystifying. The ICC recognizes that cricket is never going to be a dominant sport (outside of South Asia), and it does not have the incentive or desire to grow the game outside of the England and its former colonies. It would rather keep the status quo. Letting more nations in could potentially damage English influence and that of all the other top cricketing nations (just as England lost its preeminence in football without even knowing it.) By limiting the World Cup to just a handful of nations, the ICC ensures that only a handful of nations will stay at the top. I cannot imagine that the British press minds that given that England still wants to be good at something, and they have pretty much lost top dog status in all their other sports.
It is however, a shortsighted and foolish policy, and one day the ICC will reap what it sows.