Cricket is one of the world’s most popular sports. Since the first test match in 1877 between England and Australia in Melbourne, the sport has increased in popularity exponentially and is beloved in countries all over the world. Unlike other sports, most notably football, there is not the same spread of nation-states with representative teams. In the men’s football FIFA rankings, there are 210 official national teams. The three forms of cricket that are currently played all have different numbers of men’s sides in their (International Cricket Council) ICC rankings: 10 in the Test rankings, 20 in the ODI rankings, and 83 in the T20 rankings. Test cricket, the most historic and prestigious level of the game, has under 5% of the national teams compared to football. This may seem an unfair comparison. However, it is the stated goal of the ICC for cricket to become the “world’s most favourite sport.”
The 10 nations that currently play test cricket are:
- New Zealand
- Sri Lanka
- South Africa
- West Indies
In India, cricket is the national sport. The old cliche of cricket being a religion is often fitting on the subcontinent; professional players are treated almost as deities. The second-largest country on earth loving cricket to the extent that Indians do helps to boost the popularity of the sport. The Indian Premier League, a yearly T20 competition that attracts the best players in the game, is now the world’s premier T20 tournament. To some critics, this has been to the detriment of the longer form of the game; with some players choosing or preferring the shorter form over a test series. A poorer quality of test cricket decreases interest and therefore makes for a less popular sport.
Cricket is similarly popular in Australia. As soon as the football codes’ finals have taken place, the pitches are mowed and the pads are on. Having been victorious in the first-ever test, they have a long and storied history in the sport. The Ashes, played alternately every two years in England and Australia, is perhaps the most famous cricket competition.
In the 2019 World Cup the number of teams and the format were changed in order to ensure the best teams played each other. This made for a great tournament in terms of things like fan engagement, cricket betting, and the excitement of seeing top quality cricket. However, there was an element of gatekeeping to the tournament. Once again, in comparison to the football World Cup, there was a lack of involvement for the smaller nations. A distinct lack of “David vs Goliath” matches failed to engage casual fans. The final, one of the most memorable finishes in cricket history, was on free-to-air television. The super over, ending in a dramatic victory for England, was watched by over 1.6 billion people. More free to air cricket can only help the popularity of cricket, but it is too frequently behind a subscription paywall.
Colonialism and Commonwealth
All 10 countries have something else in common other than the fact that they are test-playing nations: they were colonised by the British empire and are still members of the Commonwealth today. The empire attempted to install social customs in colonised nations and cricket was seen to be a gentlemanly yet fiercely competitive game, the perfect embodiment of British values. Today, there continues to be a perceived elitism around the sport in England. This is backed up by statistics, with 9 of the 11 in a test team v Pakistan in 2020 having been educated at a fee-paying school. This perception, true or not, has somewhat affected the popularity of cricket in the UK and across the world.
The Future of Cricket
The boards of the three most prestigious test playing nations have a considerable amount of control over the ICC – India (BCCI), Australia (CA), and England (ECB). The BCCI especially has an influence, owing to the fact that Indian cricket creates around 80% of the ICC’s revenue. Should the ICC wish to follow through on its stated desire to make cricket more popular than football, more nations would need to be playing regularly in international tournaments. This would lessen the power of Indian cricket and may not be something the BCCI would support.
In 2015, ICC chief executive Dave Richardson dropped a hint about cricket’s next big expansion: the USA. The idea is once again to follow in football’s footsteps – the 1994 Football World Cup in the US helped soccer explode in popularity. In 2017, influential CA executive James Sutherland stated, “my personal view is that it would be great at some stage in the next cycle for the ICC to commit to having a world event in the USA.” There are more and more people playing cricket in the US than ever before, with large ex-pat communities from cricket-playing nations and an up and coming national team. With the 2028 Olympic Games being held in Los Angeles, the ICC has targeted this to be the first Olympics to feature cricket since 1900. ICC chair Greg Barclay was optimistic: “We have more than a billion fans globally and almost 90 per cent of them want to see cricket at the Olympics…whilst there are also 30 million cricket fans in the USA.” Cricket as an Olympic sport would allow any and all nations to participate, and on the world stage could be a huge step in helping cricket to become a truly global sport.