“It’s like subcontinent teams asking to be included in the football World Cup!”
When it comes to the written word, tonality can often be difficult to comprehend, but in this case there was no mistaking Sunil Gavaskar’s tone. There was a certain derision, a bit of scorn about the Indian cricketing legend’s words in a column for Mid-Day in June. Stretch the imagination a little bit and you could almost hear his familiar throaty laugh.
The reason for his snark? Gavaskar was taking a dig at Ireland and Scotland’s repeated complaints about the International Cricket Council’s 10-team World Cup in 2019. Fully justifying the ICC’s decision and taking a swipe at those who have vehemently criticised cricket’s governing body, Gavaskar noted that the two teams had failed to advance from the ICC World Cup qualifiers.
Hence, if they “were not good enough to qualify in an Associate members’ event, then how can they even think in terms of playing with the big boys in the World Cup?”
Taking the World out of the Cup
True to form, the 68-year-old’s perceived dismissal of Associate teams raised hackles online. The ICC had made the decision to trim the World Cup to 10 teams back in 2011, which predictably caused quite a lot of anger. The decision was reversed in 2014, allowing 14 teams for the next World Cup in 2015, but that was a one-off: the ICC stuck to its decision of a 10-team World Cup for every corresponding edition of the tournament.
As the 2019 edition comes closer, the decision has attracted vehement criticism, but the ICC has stoutly defended itself till now, by pointing to the fact that it had established a qualifying process for the Associates to make it to last two spots in the tournament.
Cricket’s governing body has regularly cited “quality control” as the chief defence for this delimitation of a “World Cup”. The argument goes something like this: the World Cup should be treated as a pinnacle of the sport and, hence, in the words of Dave Richardson, the ICC chief executive in 2015, it “should be played between teams that are evenly matched and competitive”.
In a sense, this kind of thinking puts cricket on the opposite side of the spectrum when compared to the world’s biggest sport, football, which recently announced that it is expanding its own World Cup to 48 teams from the regular 32, starting with the 2026 edition.
This gives rise to an important question – is a World Cup meant to exhibit the best of its sport or is it meant to be inclusive of all the sport’s voices, no matter their difference in qualities?
Spreading the beautiful game
Fifa, football’s governing body, has in the last few years, decided to take the expansion route. Everyone hasn’t been a fan of it – many have pointed to the fact that football’s World Cup expansion has mainly been an exercise in power-grabbing by Fifa’s top executives, which is mostly true.
That being said, “the beautiful game” has truly conquered frontiers. The Fifa World Cup expanded to 24 teams in 1982 and then to 32 in 1998, allowing more teams from Africa, Asia and North America, traditionally not as strong as the footballing powerhouses of Europe and South America, to participate.
The results also showed – before 1982, only four teams from outside Europe and South America advanced from the first round in 11 editions, which increased to seven teams making it to and beyond the quarters in nine editions since then.
The recent decision to expand to 48 teams in 2026 is a continuation of Fifa’s policy of championing the sport beyond its traditional strongholds of Europe and South America. The current president of the organisation, Gianni Infantino remarked, “Football is more than Europe and South America” as a means to justify the expansion.
But what is also important to note that the very nature of football and its global popularity provide for the environment for taking the game outside its traditional strongholds.
There is no tinkering of formats in football, which does not allow for the sort of dilution which cricket has to contend with. Ninety-minute affairs mean even four games can be scheduled in a day and the quick nature of the sport ensures even mismatches are not long drawn out.
But more importantly, football can afford to expand because of the undisputed global popularity it commands. Nielsen’s World Football Report 2018 observed that 43% percentage of people surveyed over 18 markets across different continents professed their “interest” in the sport, which equated to a staggering 736 million people.
This was head and shoulders above the second-most popular sport in the survey, basketball, which came in at 36%. For those interested, cricket ranked seventh in the list with around 20% of the surveyed population professing interest in the sport.
Rugby provides a template
Perhaps, then, cricket’s point of comparison shouldn’t be with football. The bottom-ranked sport of this list was rugby which drew the interest of only 12% of the population or 207 million people in 2017. That does not mean that rugby isn’t a popular global sport. Watch the Six Nations Championship or the Rugby World Cup to gauge how passionately people follow it. In countries as widespread as New Zealand, Wales, Georgia, Fiji and Madagascar, it is a de-facto national sport.
In contrast to cricket though, rugby union has taken an active effort in bringing more countries into its fold. In the past, the sport only had two major zones: the European core consisting of England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales, who compete for the Six Nations Championship, and the Southern Hemisphere powers of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
The Rugby World Cup expanded to include 20 teams in 1999 from the earlier 12. Teams from the Americas, Asia and Africa were included. The expanded affair probably saw its greatest success when hitherto unheralded Japan pulled off one of the greatest sporting upsets of all time, defeating mighty South Africa at the 2015 World Cup. Coincidentally, Japan the 2019 Rugby World Cup will be in Japan, the first time Asia will host the tournament.
But perhaps the sport’s greatest success was a hard-fought inclusion in the 2016 Rio Olympics. For cricketing bosses scratching their heads and wondering how to accommodate the sport in the quadrennial sporting extravaganza, rugby provides a clear template – rather than including their longer 15-a-side version, the shorter 7-a-side version was incorporated in the event. The result has been an infusion of viewership and funding with the slimmed-down format taking the game to distant frontiers.
What really is a World Cup?
In Twenty20, cricket does have a format with which, theoretically, the Rugby Sevens template can be followed. But perhaps the larger matter of expansion or consolidation in any sport comes down to a few questions: What is a World Cup? Should it be the pinnacle of a sport? Or should a World Cup be more of a spectacle, a carnival with a chance for the world to see some of the sport’s many colours on display?
Cricket’s governing body, the ICC, obviously feels the first one holds true. But is it really? Can not a World Cup be both – a pinnacle of glory and also a tournament to expand the game? The last two football and rugby World Cups have been won by the best teams in the tournament, hence providing the best will always find a way.
But the enjoyment, and this is the same for the 14-team cricket World Cups too, has often come from what happens earlier. Those simmering group stages where an Afghanistan or Ireland in cricket, a Senegal or Colombia in football, or an Argentina or Japan in rugby, go eye-to-eye with a bigger nation, amid an unfettered pride at playing on the big stage.
Perhaps cricket does not have to go the football way and over-arch itself to 48 teams. Even 32 would be an oversight. But perhaps it can start from 10 and try and push it till 16. There is plenty of quality and pluck in the Associate nations. And sometimes, as Iceland, South Korea, Morocco and Iran have shown in the 2018 Fifa World Cup, they are often the ones who leave the most lasting of memories.