Cricket is often thought of as the very embodiment of tradition and slow evolution, yet it’s a sport that has been prepared to adopt quite radical changes to survive and thrive over the last 50 years - even if reluctantly at first
Mark OliverMark Oliver is founder and Chairman of Oliver & Ohlbaum Associates (O&O), the London based strategic advisers to the global media, sports and entertainment industries. He was commercial rights adviser to the EPL from 1995 to 1999.
Cricket is often thought of as the very embodiment of tradition and slow evolution, yet it’s been a sport that has been prepared to adopt quite radical changes to survive and thrive over the last 50 years - even if reluctantly at first.
Early development of limited-over, one-day cricket in the 1960s and 1970s, was followed by the razzmatazz of Kerry Packer’s cricket circus, and his introduction of so called ‘pyjama cricket’. Three decades later, in 2003, with the appeal of existing limited-over cricket tournaments waning, T20 began in England - injecting new life, new audiences, and new money into the game.
Alongside these format developments have been many technologically-led innovations aimed at improving umpiring decisions across both the limited-over and test-match forms of the game – Hawk Eye, heat cameras and ‘snickometers’, to name but a few – with a review system that has helped increase a sense of fairness in the game and along the way to increase crowd involvement, both in the ground and at home.
More minor changes to fielding rules have ensured one-day games don’t get predictable and defensive. Cricket even found a way to deal with rain-affected draws in one-day cricket with the Duckworth-Lewis scoring system.
All this change has helped cricket become a $2-billion-a-year sport, with revenues growing at 5 to 6 per cent a year
All this change has helped cricket become a $2-billion-a-year sport, with revenues growing at 5 to 6 per cent a year. Yet, despite all this innovation, there are two issues the sport still grapples with. Both of them focus on imbalances across cricket.
The first issue is the future of five-day test-match cricket, and its supposed feeder competitions: four-day county/state representative cricket (province cricket in South Africa and Island cricket in the West Indies. A gradual acceptance that representative cricket needs heavy cross-subsidy from the international game has been replaced by a fear that both test and county/state cricket might need to be cross-subsidised by the one-day formats (although test-match cricket remains popular in England, attendances have been declining long term in Australia and India).
Within the one-day limited-over formats, the hope is that short-form cricket (T20 and perhaps the England and Wales Cricket Board’s proposed new 100 format) will provide the money to keep the whole sport on the road in the future.
The second issue is the national imbalances within the game: the persistent gap between the top four or five nations and the rest in test cricket, and the top eight nations and the rest in all forms of cricket, and the more recent and growing gap between the economic and financial power of Indian cricket, and the rest of the world (which has also helped keep global cricket revenues growing).
Cricket’s answer so far in terms of its mix of formats has been to supply more short-form cricket
Cricket’s answer so far in terms of its mix of formats has been to supply more short-form cricket, but to keep test-match, county/state cricket and longer forms of limited-over cricket largely unchanged.
The response to the persistent gap between the traditional eight nations and the rest in test cricket, has until recently been a more broadly-based qualification and participation in World Cup limited-over competitions – although this was reversed in the last and next 50-over World Cups, to keep the tournament to a manageable length.
The response to the gap between the top four or five test nations and the rest has been the introduction of a two-tier test calendar with the top four or five test nations competing more often and mostly in five-match series between each other, and the also-rans mostly playing each other or making up the numbers with very occasional short test series with the major nations –all wrapped up into something called the ICC Test Championship played over a four-year period.
The response to the growing power of India within the game has been both to accept it, but also to try to limit it. Accepting it by allowing the IPL - the Indian franchise-based T20 league- a clear slot in the international calendar and allowing the world’s best non-Indian national team players to participate in the competition. Limiting it by trying to set up rivals to it – Australia’s Big Bash League, the West Indies’ Hero Caribbean Premier League, and the ECB’s planned 100 tournament to try and deal with the economic dominance of the IPL.
Might there be a better response: reforming test cricket, reforming county/state cricket, increasing the quality rather than the quantity of limited-over cricket, and perhaps even creating a world T20 franchise league? Here are just a few sample initiatives.
• Minor nations outside the top eight could play in major test nations’ county/state competitions: Scotland, Ireland and the Netherlands could join the ECB’s county game; Zimbabwe, Namibia and Kenya could join South Africa’s Sunfoil series; Bangladesh and the UAE could join India’s Ranji Trophy; and perhaps Australia’s Sheffield Shield could think of eventually inviting in teams from the Far East and South America. These nations might play the occasional two-test series versus the top eight as well, but their focus would be the major nations’ county/state competitions.
• Over and above this, the format of the county/state game could perhaps move to a long three-day match– or nine-session format (with a long evening session under lights and allowing for play on a fourth day in rain-affected matches, if needed), with an even greater disparity in scoring between draws and wins than currently.
• Test cricket might consider moving to a four x long-day (12-session) format, with play in the fifth day only if weather delays necessitated it. Home versus visiting side imbalances that have only got worse in recent years, even between leading test nations, might be addressed by doing away with the toss and allowing the visiting side the first choice of batting or bowling, or perhaps putting pitch preparation under the auspices of a global body.
• Creating a global T20 franchise league with the top four teams from the IPL joining another eight to 12 from the rest of the world, with calendar time freed up by reducing the number of 50-over one-day matches played, might make one strong global complement to the IPL rather than four, rather weaker, competitors (in England, Australia, South Africa and West Indies).
• And each of these changes might reinforce each other, with a reinvigorated county/state game, a global T20 league and a less congested global calendar all encouraging more players to play regular non-test cricket outside their home nations. This might avoid the current situation where only three of this summer’s visiting Indian test team in the series against England had any significant experience of playing in English conditions – which helps perpetuate home side advantage issues.
Cricket is a traditional sport surprisingly willing to consider change when necessary. But it too often just adds the new to the old, substituting quantity for quality, creating greater imbalances and cross-subsidies. It might need a more fundamental rationalisation and re-balancing in the next 10 to 20 years if it is to prosper in global sports’ second wave of change.
This is the latest part in a series of opinion articles by Mark Oliver on disruption of sports in the digital age.