ICC Cricket World Cup 2023: Can the sport finally go global?

As cricket’s marquee event kicks off in India, its ambitions to spread beyond the Commonwealth are on test.

[Nataliia Shulga/Al Jazeera]
[Nataliia Shulga/Al Jazeera]

Packed stadiums. Raucous crowds. Hooting vuvuzelas. The stage is set for cricket’s biggest carnival, which kicks off in India on October 5 with 10 nations competing for the World Cup over six weeks.

On the surface, the numbers suggest a global event: With over one billion fans, cricket is among the world’s most popular sports. But almost five centuries after the earliest recorded reference to cricket in southeast England, the sport’s market largely remains limited to a handful of countries, led by India.

The sport spread with the British Empire, with the first international matches played in the second half of the 19th century. Yet, even as cricket has evolved over the years with changes in rules and the introduction of new formats and competitions, it has struggled to expand its reach beyond Commonwealth countries.

India, Australia and England dominate as cricketing powerhouses on the field while also holding significant positions of power off the field in the governance structures of the sport. Apart from the ‘Big Three’, other major cricketing nations include Pakistan, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Bangladesh and Caribbean countries that play together as the West Indies.

And that’s about it.

Football’s governing body FIFA boasts more than 200 member nations. The International Cricket Council (ICC), by contrast, has only 12 full members, with dozens of other nations as associate members.

The 50-over World Cup, for long cricket’s marquee event, has swung between accommodating more teams – a record 16 participated in the 2007 edition – and limiting participation to a select band of top-performing nations, as will be the case this time around.

The next edition, in 2027, will see 14 teams battle it out, but that’s still a much smaller number than the 32 nations that have competed in the football World Cup since 1998. In fact, 48 will feature in the next football World Cup in 2026.

So, can the World Cup fire up interest in cricket beyond countries that already love the sport? Or are shorter formats, like 20-overs-a-side competitions – known as Twenty20 (T20) cricket – the vehicles that can propel support around the world? Does cricket even have a global future?

The short answer: Cricket does have scope to grow, but it is unlikely to become a global phenomenon anytime soon. And more than the 50-over World Cup, it is the three-hour spectacle of T20 cricket that is the way forward, say experts, especially with the emergence of franchise leagues in new markets such as the United States. Women’s cricket can also help improve the sport’s global footprint, while a possible return to the Olympic Games might serve as a boost.

Cricket - ICC Cricket World Cup 2023 - Captain's Day - Narendra Modi Stadium, Ahmedabad, India - October 4, 2023 General view during the captain's day REUTERS/Andrew Boyers
Captains of the 10 countries participating in the Cricket World Cup 2023 field questions ahead of the start of the competition, at Narendra Modi Stadium, Ahmedabad, India, on October 4, 2023. But cricket itself faces difficult questions as the event kicks off [Andrew Boyers/Reuters]

Why has cricket not become global yet?

Unlike football, playing cricket involves high expenditure – be it buying the necessary gear, setting up stadiums or maintaining pitches.

“Cricket has a relatively high barrier to entry compared to most sports, simply due to the level of equipment required to play even a recreational game,” said Matt Roller, assistant editor at the ESPNCricinfo website. “In my view, that is the principal reason that football has long been a global sport: All you need is a ball and any small space.”

But there are other reasons, too, behind cricket’s failure – by and large – to expand beyond its traditional markets, believe some experts.

One key factor? The sport’s roots.

Jamie Alter, a cricket analyst and journalist, said that cricket’s foundations in colonialism mean the very fabric of the sport is tied to Commonwealth countries. “The game is too intrinsic to the cultures of most of these countries, and despite the efforts of the ICC to expand cricket across the globe, it remains a rather limited sport since it relies on too few countries to properly thrive and expand,” Alter said.

Traditionally cricket-loving nations like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh alone constitute a market of nearly two billion people.

“Even more insular is the strength of cricket from a commercial perspective,” he added, referring to the economic clout of India and developed cricket-playing countries like England and Australia. That insularity can blunt any sense of urgency to expand the sport’s reach among administrators.

Still, it isn’t as though the pool of nations that play cricket has remained entirely stagnant.

Though there are records of the British playing cricket in Afghanistan in the 19th century, the sport really took off in the war-torn nation among refugees who played in camps in Pakistan in the past two decades.

Then, in its first-ever 50-over World Cup in 2015, the Afghan side beat Scotland. In 2019, the country received test status – the pinnacle of the sport – and soon defeated two other test nations: Bangladesh and fellow greenhorn, Ireland. Afghan players are now regulars in T20 franchise leagues across the world.

But there is little to suggest that the sport’s bosses have plans in place to replicate Afghanistan’s success. In fact, some experts believe that administrators are wary of upstart teams upsetting major nations with big markets, especially in events like the World Cup.

A cricket fan blackens a poster displaying the faces of Indian cricket team players in Mumbai March 24, 2007. Hundreds of cricket fans across India burnt effigies, defaced posters and held mock funeral processions of the national team, a day after their defeat to Sri Lanka in the World Cup match in the Caribbean. REUTERS/Punit Paranjpe (INDIA)
A cricket fan blackens a poster displaying the faces of Indian cricket team players in Mumbai on March 24, 2007. The 2007 World Cup saw 16 teams participate – the largest ever. But less-fancied nations defeated bigger markets like India and Pakistan, and the scale of the event was curtailed in future editions [File: Punit Paranjpe/Reuters]

‘Growing very slowly’

Cricket World Cups have often attracted criticism over their small pool of participating teams. The World Cups are poorly designed – too long and with too few teams – said Tim Wigmore, deputy cricket correspondent for The Daily Telegraph newspaper. The 10-team World Cup in India will have 48 matches spanning 46 days. The 2022 football World Cup in Qatar had 32 teams and yet ran for less than a month.

“Cricket has been incredibly conservative in the number of teams it has allowed in World Cups,” Wigmore, co-author of the book Crickonomics, said.

And the reasons are not entirely innocent, according to him.

In 2007, the 50-overs World Cup had 16 teams. But Ireland defeated Pakistan and Bangladesh beat India, pushing the South Asian nations out of the competition at the group stage. Wigmore believes the number of participating nations was “perversely” reduced in subsequent tournaments “to ensure that sides from bigger markets had more games”.

Like the men’s game, the women’s World Cups also feature very few teams. The first edition of the Women’s World Cup featured seven teams in 1973, and the participation fluctuated over the years, reaching the highest count of 11 in 1997. The latest Women’s World Cup in 2022 featured eight teams and the next edition in 2025 will also have the same count.

“So allowing more teams is long overdue – though this year’s ODI World Cup still only has 10 teams and the number in the women’s World Cups is only growing very slowly,” Wigmore said. ODIs – One Day Internationals – are 50-over-a-side matches between international teams.

Georgie Heath, a cricket commentator and presenter, said that the World Cups also need to be marketed in the right way to attract new fans.

“So much advertising seems to be targeted at those who are already cricket fans and are going to watch or attend games anyway. There needs to be more focus on how they are going to bring in new audiences, players and fans and what the sport offers them,” Heath said.

“Often only being on pay-to-view television is a barrier to expansion, too, and this is something that needs to be addressed as well as some of the extortionate prices often charged for tickets.”

A chaotic ticketing system at the World Cup that’s about to begin has frustrated fans. Ticket prices range from 499 rupees ($6) to 40,000 rupees ($481) on BookMyShow, the official ticketing platform. Rates in the resale market are exorbitant, with the most expensive ticket for the highly-anticipated India vs Pakistan match selling for 25 million rupees ($300,545) on Viagogo, a multinational ticket exchange and ticket resale brand.

Meanwhile, questions over the very survival of the ODI format are mounting.

Cricket - - Final - South Africa v Australia - Newlands Cricket Ground, Cape Town, South Africa - February 26, 2023 Australia's Meg Lanning celebrates with the trophy and teammates after winning the ICC Women’s Cricket T20 World Cup REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
Australia celebrate after winning the women’s T20 World Cup in Cape Town, South Africa, on February 26, 2023. The shorter format has emerged as the sport’s most popular – and many analysts believe it is the vehicle that could take cricket global [Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters]

The future: 20 or 50 overs?

In July, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) – the custodians of the game’s laws – recommended limiting the number of ODI internationals following the 2027 World Cup. The suggestion comes at a time when the 50-over format is losing its relevance: Longer, five-day test matches remain the priority for traditional fans, while casual viewers have embraced a quicker and glitzier 20-over-a-side format that has spawned multiple franchise leagues.

Cricketers themselves are less convinced that it is time to bid farewell to ODIs.

A report in 2022 by the Federation of International Cricketers’ Association, the global body that represents players, said that 54 percent of cricketers still consider the ODI World Cup as the top trophy to compete for, though the number had reduced significantly from 86 percent in their 2018-19 survey.

“My view is that one-day cricket will be played less and less at the international level, but that the World Cup will remain a pinnacle event that players aspire to be part of,” Roller said. “The general issue for 50-over cricket is that bilateral international cricket is increasingly being squeezed by franchise leagues – and private investors clearly have limited interest in the idea of 50-over leagues, seeing the speed of games as a key component of short-form cricket’s appeal.”

To Roller, the T20 World Cup – held every two years – is a “much clearer vehicle for growth”. With next year’s T20 World Cup set to feature 20 teams, its biggest pool of participants so far, Wigmore, the cricket writer and author, expects the tournament to be a big catalyst for cricket’s growth.

But it won’t be easy. Lower-ranked teams are likely to struggle to remain competitive as they receive a very limited share of central broadcast revenue from the T20 World Cup, Roller pointed out, limiting the resources that they can funnel back into popularising the sport.

“Staging the tournament every two years also risks killing the golden goose: the scarcity of World Cups in other sports helps add to their prestige,” he added.

Other analysts believe the future lies in T20 cricket – not so much in international matches, but in franchise leagues.

Fans in the stands watch the Texas Super Kings and Los Angeles Knight Riders compete in a Major League Cricket match in Grand Prairie, Texas, Thursday, July 13, 2023. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Fans in the stands watch the Texas Super Kings and Los Angeles Knight Riders compete in a Major League Cricket match in Grand Prairie, Texas, Thursday, July 13, 2023 [File: LM Otero/AP Photo]

‘Building a successful business’

In 2018, ex-ICC CEO David Richardson said that it was “quite clear” that T20 cricket would be the format by which the governing body could “globalise and grow the game worldwide”.

Fast forward to 2023, and the T20 format seems to be flourishing. There are domestic and franchise leagues taking place in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Oceania and some parts of Europe.

The Indian Premier League (IPL), which has an estimated brand value of $8.4bn, has built its status as the world’s top T20 competition since its inception in 2008. Lucrative leagues have also started in Australia, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, England and Wales, Pakistan, the Caribbean and most recently in the United States.

“T20 cricket has spread the sport, but for cricket to be a sustainable and global game, it’s going to be these leagues that are starting up everywhere, like in the US or UAE,” said Bharat Sundaresan, cricket writer for the Cricbuzz website. “Eventually, we’ll reach a point where if there is a window, new leagues could come up in other nations.

“And that’s personally how I see cricket growing even more in a global sense,” Sundaresan said.

In July, cricket broke into the world’s wealthiest market, the US, with the launch of Major League Cricket, with six teams competing in the T20 format. The MLC assembled an impressive group of investors, with four of its six franchises owned by business entities that also own teams in the IPL.

The US – along with the West Indies – is also scheduled to host the T20 World Cup next year, offering an opportunity for the sport and format to grow there.

“All these IPL franchise owners, whether they have the best interest of the sport in mind or not, the one thing they do know to do is to run a successful business,” Sundaresan said.

“Their business is so dependent on their brand being showcased for a longer period during the year rather than just for two months, which is why they’re buying out all the teams around the world. It’s just going to lead to there being more leagues,” he added.

Sundaresan also tipped women’s cricket as playing a key role in enhancing the sport’s global image. The first full-fledged five-team Women’s Premier League (WPL) earlier this year saw several female cricketers witnessing the biggest payday of their careers at the auction.

Meanwhile, the FairBreak Invitational T20 held its second edition in Hong Kong this year, featuring some of the world’s best female cricketers who took part in the six-team tournament.

“I think women’s cricket will popularise cricket as a sport more globally than what men’s cricket has been able to do in the last 150 years,” Sundaresan said.

He cited the stunning emergence of Thailand – a country with no known history in the sport – as a petri dish of talent in the women’s game. They qualified for their first global event in 2020 when they competed at the Women’s T20 World Cup and the team has been ranked as high as 10th internationally.

Thai players have also grabbed attention in franchise leagues. In 2020, opening batter Natthakan Chantham played for the Trailblazers in the Women’s T20 Challenge competition in India, becoming the first Thai cricketer to play in a professional T20 franchise league. All-rounders Nattaya Boochatham and Sornnarin Tippoch, as well as batter Naruemol Chaiwai, featured in the FairBreak Invitational T20 this year.

“Suddenly, it’s a free-for-all, right?” Sundaresan said. “Like, you can be part of a national team in a country which doesn’t have a great standard of cricket, but you have a tournament to go to and play.”

An LA2028 sign is seen in front of a blazing Olympic cauldron at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. The cauldron was lit early Wednesday morning at the stadium that was the site of the 1932 and 1984 Olympics. An International Olympic Committee meeting in Peru is to make it official that LA will host in 2028 and that the 2024 Games will go to Paris. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
An LA2028 sign is seen in front of a blazing Olympic cauldron at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday, September 13, 2017. Cricket authorities want the sport included in the 2028 Games, but sceptics say it won’t help globalise the game [Richard Vogel/AP Photo]

An Olympic medal next?

The T20 format is also firing bigger ambitions for cricket. The sport’s authorities have bid for cricket to be included in the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 2028, having last featured at the 1900 Games in Paris.

The proposal: A five-team T20 competition, for both men and women.

But will cricket as an Olympic sport help expand its global reach? Not everyone is sure.

“I’d love to see cricket played at the Olympics for the second time especially as this will then include women playing cricket, too,” Heath, the commentator and presenter, said.

“My reservations here lie in considering how many countries will be included, what the qualification routes are, who plays, and the danger that it just becomes another tournament of the same countries playing out as we always see.”

Other experts agree that while Olympic involvement could give cricket more global visibility, it is unlikely to transform its footprint overnight.

“A small T20 tournament might not be transformative in itself and would likely be played by only a few teams in the first instance,” Roller said.

An Olympic stamp in itself wouldn’t mean that cricket has gone global, Roller said. “There are a number of relatively niche sports at the Olympics already, which are much smaller than cricket in terms of participation numbers or audience.”

Indeed, some analysts wonder whether cricket even needs to aspire for a presence in every part of the world.

“I love cricket and always will, but I don’t see how it going to the Olympics is going to really promote the sport,” Alter said.

“Does cricket need to be a global sport? It’s successful for over 150 years in its own world.”

Source: Al Jazeera