Planet Cricket: Closed shop is ended for T20 growth

(Photo: Getty Images)

By Tim Wigmore

Throughout its history, cricket has been obsessed with the anachronistic concept of ‘status’. Until 1962, first-class cricketers in England were classified as either “gentlemen” (those with a private income, as it was known, who were able to play for free, though many were paid on the sly, giving rise to the ‘shamateur’ tag) and “players” (professional cricketers who earned their living from the game).

Until well after World War Two, it was convention at many counties – and even for England, too – that the captain had to be a gentleman.

There were even separate gates and changing rooms for gentlemen and players to use at many grounds. The modern equivalent of the ludicrous gentlemen/players divide is in the concept of status in international cricket.

Other sports, like football, use ranking systems and qualification to determine a team’s standing – who they get to play, what competitions they reach and, because financial rewards are linked to how countries perform, the cash they get from the global sports governing body, too.

Not cricket. Ever since 1965, when the Imperial Cricket Council, as it was then, admitted non-Test-playing nations, the international game has been governed by status. There are the Full Members, who get the overwhelming majority of the ICC’s cash, guaranteed voting rights and huge membership perks – being able to play Test cricket or, until next year’s World Cup, a guaranteed berth in every World Cup.

Their funding and fixtures are barely linked to performance at all.

Then there are the Associates.Their funding and fixtures are explicitly linked to performance on the field and the quality of their governance and participation programmes off it, which is just as it should be.

The trouble is, this meritocracy collapses as soon as you get to the Full Members. So Zimbabwe, say, receive eight times as much from the ICC as Scotland – even though the two are perfectly matched on the pitch, as shown in a 1-1 series draw in Scotland last summer and an epic tie during the recent World Cup Qualifiers.

More importantly, as a Full Member, Zimbabwe are guaranteed a steady stream of fixtures, while Scotland get barely any: a paltry four against Full Members since the 2015 World Cup.

This rigid hierarchy, which reflects Victorian thinking and not the realities of 21st-century sport, has held cricket back for too long. Not only have Associates received far less cash and fewer fixtures than Full Members – even when they can compete, or beat them, on the pitch; they have often even been denied the right to call their international matches ‘international matches’. As one-day international status is limited to 16 teams, Hong Kong – who beat Afghanistan in the World Cup Qualifiers in March – now aren’t even allowed to play ODIs. They can play 50-over cricket against other nations; it is just that these can’t be classified as international matches.

The self-defeating distinction makes it harder for Associates to get valuable publicity, and easier for their matches to be ignored. In any other sport, if two countries – even if that is Andorra against Gibraltar in football – meet, it is classed as a full international.

Finally, at least, T20 cricket is catching up. The ICC’s board meeting last month announced that T20I status will be extended from the current 18 to the full 104 who are members of the ICC; all member nations will be allowed to play women’s T20Is, too. So cricket, at last, will be able to have a world ranking table for all its members, from one to 104. In a sport as conservative as cricket, this counts as wonderfully progressive – even if the distinction between ‘international’ internationals and ‘non-international’s internationals should never have existed.

The announcement was confirmation that the ICC sees T20 as an ever-increasing part of the future. It was accompanied by even more significant news: the Champions Trophy in 2021 would be replaced by another World T20, to go with the one in 2020.

On one level this is baffling. Having waited 55 months for a Men’s WT20, between April 2016 and October 2020, there will now be two in a year – and then another three years until the subsequent tournament, before the tournament reverts to a two-year cycle.

The Champions Trophy was the most dynamic ODI tournament around, bringing the top eight teams together for 15 captivating days. Yet in a broader sense its demise should be welcomed. With the new ODI League, beginning in 2020, there is much less need for the Champions Trophy – bilateral ODIs finally having proper context.

And T20 is the best – not the only – tool to globalise the game. Associates get lamentably few opportunities at the world stage – far fewer than in other sports – and this will help a little.

Most importantly, the WT20 is a captivating event: the one stage on which the most popular format of the game really matters at international level. It has been tinkered with for too long, oscillating between being every two years and every four. Now, it must be enshrined as taking place every two years, and kept there.

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