Staff Writer Seb Brooks talks about the future of cricket and the decisions which lie in wait for the sport's future.
Cricket has a rich history, and has continued to grow into the modern and dynamic game that it is today. More recently, this transformation has been accelerated in a number of ways, especially by the rise of TwentyTwenty. As part of this evolution, it is not surprising to see discussions about potential ways forward for the game. These discussions generally fall into two main categories: firstly, how each of the three formats (Test, ODI, and T20) can coexist successfully in the modern climate, and secondly, how can cricket expand its global reach still further. This will form the basis of my analysis, looking at each of these concepts together to build up some idea of what are the key things for cricket to consider going forward.
Taking a look at the three formats separately, the one with the greatest question marks over its future is Test cricket. Over the past decade, articles have been published with headlines such as “Test cricket in Crisis”, “Test cricket needs radical change or it will not survive”, and “Does Test cricket have a Future?” To a great extent, these pieces do have a point. The longer format of the game now no longer attracts the same attention that it once used to. Since these games are played over five days, with seven hours of play per day, a lot of people now lack the patience or commitment needed for watching Test matches. This is part of an era where attention spans are getting shorter, and we are living in a world in which people want things instantly. As a result, it is not surprising to see crowds dwindle across the world, except in England, and less viewership on TV. In response to this, the ICC introduced the World Test Championship last year in an attempt to generate extra interest. This attempted to tackle another problem that the longest format had, a lack of context from bilateral series, by introducing a new league structure with points for every series.
However, the points system is flawed, (an example is winning a match in a five-test series earns 24 points, while a win in a two-test series is worth 60 points), and this needs to be changed going forward. Additionally, it is not an equal round robin, as teams chose who they want to play against, which also needs to be fixed. This would in turn create a fairer competition and a more accurate representation of team ability. Support has also recently been growing for four-day Tests. This would increase the number of overs in a day than there currently are but reduce the total length of a match, in an attempt to boost scoring rates and action. A convincing statistic in support of this is that the average number of overs to achieve a result in the last two decades has now fallen to 318 overs, as Michael Vaughan points out, and a “full” four-day game would still fit in 392 overs in total. However, whilst a “full” day sounds good on paper, it is difficult in practice, with weather (particularly in England!) and slow over rates around the world being clear reasons for this. In any case, Day-Night Tests are a must for the future because they bring increased crowds, as well as viewership, due to the prime time slot on TV. There are still some issues to be resolved in Day-Night games such as the durability of the pink ball and dew in the subcontinent, but hopefully these can be resolved in time to make at least one match of every series a Day-Night one. Overall, a future for Test cricket depends on an improved World Test Championship system, pitches which provide an even balance between bat and ball (no need for four day games though), and Day-Night games.
Looking at the “white ball” formats, it is clear that there are also some important things to consider. With the cricket calendar becoming increasingly rammed full of events as boards attempt to make as much money as possible, it has been argued that ODI cricket, without either the instant thrill of T20 cricket, or the fascinating stories that Test cricket brings because of its length, is a limp compromise, and thus needs to be scrapped. However, in my opinion, this cannot happen for two main reasons. Firstly, the ICC cricket World Cup (held every four years) is a money-making machine and without it, the ICC would have a big hole in its budget. And secondly, it acts as a transition point between T20 and Test cricket: a format that is just long enough to ensure that this gap is not too far apart. As a result, whilst it is not my favourite format, it is nevertheless essential for the future of the game. Looking at T20, there is no doubt that it has expanded massively over the last few years at both an international and domestic level. The ICC World Twenty20, like the ODI World Cup, attracts a large audience, while domestic competitions including the Indian Premier League, Big Bash, Pakistan Super League, Caribbean Premier League and Bangladesh Super League also enjoy great popularity. In my view, the idea that T20 should only be played at the international level at World Cups in the future, is a solid one. Since domestic leagues in this format are so far and wide now, and it lacks context in international bilateral series, it makes sense to do this and create some space in an ever-packed calendar. This would be a better way to free up space than by reducing Tests from five-days to four-days because as previously mentioned, shifting Test matches in this way is tough to do, whilst in this case, there is much greater incentive.
Aside from discussions on the way that the three formats are going, cricket needs to look at ways to grow its global influence. The ICC state their ambitions clearly: “We will grow the sport by creating more opportunities for more people and nations to enjoy it and increase the competitiveness of international cricket at all levels.” However, at the moment, this has become difficult to do because of the actions of some of the top member nations, as articulated in the “Death of a Gentleman” documentary by Jarrod Kimber and Sam Collins. A notable example is that the Olympics represents the easiest way to spread the game around the world because many national governments automatically pump money into Olympic sports. This would mean that the ICC would effectively be given a helping hand, not having to spend as much as they currently do for associate nations. Yet, whilst there is a clear drive for Olympic cricket by some as a result of this, at the moment it will not happen because the top nations (especially England, Australia and India) have less incentive for doing so.
The former chairman of the ECB, Giles Clarke, for example, said that it was a “tournament too far, and difficult to do, taking place right in the middle of the English season.” Like with others, this was prioritising national interests rather than global interests: the English season could easily be adapted in order to accommodate Olympic participation some years. Nations which could add to the fanbase of the sport, such as the United States and China, are consequently given next to no money to develop cricket domestically. It is difficult to see how cricket can grow rapidly in associate members because of this. The ICC already has enough on its plate and needs support from elsewhere. Olympic cricket, if it could happen, would be a change of immense significance for the future of the sport as a result, whilst starting up T20 tournaments in these respective nations also holds the key. As we have seen, the Global T20 Canada has helped to build up enthusiasm there, and it looks like other associate countries will follow suit. This is critical as cricket constantly needs to continue to develop and grow. Whilst the sport already has a huge and committed fanbase, it could still do with greater international recognition and renown.
Overall, cricket has a number of key things to consider for the road ahead. All three formats can work together if they are managed correctly, but this is a big “if” at present, as there is current mismanagement across the board. Increasing its global expansion is also more than possible provided that the ICC can get its top members to agree to back getting the sport into the Olympics. On one level, cricket is by no means “dying”, despite some attempting to point out that this is the case recently. Looking at the viewing figures for the last two World Cups, this can be seen: the 2015 edition in Australia and New Zealand attracted an estimated audience of 2.2 billion whilst the 2019 edition in England and Wales had an increased viewership of 2.6 billion. However, there is still the potential for it to expand its global significance, especially in Europe, and its overall status. Cricket has expanded in the past, and it will be interesting to see how it expands in the future.