Twice in the space of 24 hours this month, cricket took strides towards becoming a truly global sport, and it was fitting that both developments took place in India, the main driving force in the game.
In New Delhi on October 15, Afghanistan recorded one of the biggest shocks in cricket history by defeating defending champions England at the Cricket World Cup.
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The next day in Mumbai, something less surprising but more seismic happened: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that cricket would be included in the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
Cricket last appeared at an Olympics in 1900. The Los Angeles Games are likely to feature six teams – for both men and women – playing the T20 version of the game.
While the cricketing superpower India had pushed for the inclusion, smaller countries hope it can be a game changer for a sport that has for decades been almost the sole preserve of England and seven territories that were formerly part of the British Empire: Australia, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka and the West Indies.
Afghanistan only became a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) in 2017, taking the total to 12. The remaining three members are Bangladesh, the Netherlands and Ireland – countries that rarely get a chance to play the established powers.
“During my time as the head of the Afghan Cricket Board [ACB], my argument at the ICC level was clear – we needed more opportunities to play against the big teams,” Shafiq Stanikzai, former CEO of the ACB, told Al Jazeera.
“Beating England is a testament to our belief that the more we play, the better we get.”
‘It’s a huge thing’
Whether India wins the Cricket World Cup it is currently hosting, the country off the field is the driving force in the sport due to its cricket-crazy population of 1.4 billion and its cricketing financial clout.
The Indian Premier League, a T20 competition that began on a franchise basis in 2008, is one of the most lucrative sporting competitions in the world. A five-year broadcast deal was done in 2022 for $6bn, and it attracts most of the best players.
In terms of viewers, cricket is the second most watched sport in the world after football, and much of this audience comes from the subcontinent. When India and Pakistan met in England at the 2019 World Cup, 273 million people tuned in to watch.
Such numbers are why the IOC is interested in India because the organisation’s revenue mostly comes from broadcast rights and sponsorship deals.
“The country is one of sport’s next great frontiers,” Simon Chadwick, professor of political economy and sport at Skema Business School in Paris, told Al Jazeera.
According to the United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, Los Angeles 2028 broadcast rights from Asia alone are estimated to be worth more than $250m on the back of cricket’s inclusion. For the IOC, which faces a threat posed by illegal streaming, these are significant figures.
“For cricket lovers and Indians in general, it is a huge thing that India’s favourite sport will be represented in the Olympics,” Arunava Chadhuri, a consultant who specialises in Indian sport, told Al Jazeera.
In the past, India’s cricket board was wary about cricket being an Olympic sport, worrying that it would place too many demands on already overworked players and lead to other lucrative games and tournaments being cancelled.
With India announcing its bid to host the 2036 Olympics, attitudes have changed, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his delight with cricket’s inclusion in 2028.
“As a cricket-loving nation, we specially welcome inclusion of cricket, reflecting the rising global popularity of this wonderful sport,” he wrote on social media.
Absolutely delighted that baseball-softball, cricket, flag football, lacrosse and squash will feature in @LA28. This is great news for sportspersons. As a cricket loving nation, we specially welcome inclusion of cricket, reflecting the rising global popularity of this wonderful… https://t.co/tnwrzqVPfL
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) October 16, 2023
Smaller nations have more modest ambitions for cricket’s inclusion at Los Angeles 2028 because it can take the game to the next level commercially.
With space for just six nations in Los Angeles, it is likely that the established powers will take the spots initially, but in many countries, Olympic inclusion brings with it much needed state funding and private investment.
Better facilities, coaching and investment at the grassroots level could lift the level of the smaller nations.
“It will attract all manner of inward investment into the sport, from new broadcasting contracts and sponsors to new generations of fans and investors,” Stanikzai said. “There is a real opportunity for smaller nations to take advantage of the inevitable commercial and financial windfalls.
“It means more opportunities at the global level and a great chance for associate nations to showcase their talent on a grand stage, resulting in increased funding and broader participation for all cricket boards.”
An increased profile and revenues could also help spread the game to new outposts around the planet – at least the shorter versions of it.
Chadwick pointed to the relatively recent addition of the T20 format, in which each team gets 20 overs of six balls each in a contest that usually lasts for no more than three hours, which he said shows that cricket can adapt to modern demands and can fit into an event like the Olympics and appeal to broadcasters.
“Cricket has consistently proved how new, innovative formats can engage audiences and drive content creation and sharing,” Chadwick said.
Brazil, a football-crazy nation, is hoping to make its mark in cricket and is especially ambitious in the female form of the game, in which there is a national league and a national team that made its international debut in 2007.
“Cricket now being an Olympic sport helps the development in two ways,” Roberta Moretti Avery, captain of Brazil women’s national team, told Al Jazeera.
“Firstly, through access to Olympic sports funding through the National Olympic Committee for grassroots, development of structures and high-performance funding. And secondly, it will become more accessible for Brazilians as we will have cricket on television. Brazilian commentators – and Brazilians – love the Olympics.”
The game is also growing in the United States, driven by an Indian community of almost five million people.
In July, the first ever Major League Cricket season took place, featuring six teams and an average attendance of close to 4,000, and Los Angeles could help take the game to the next level.
In China too, there is a small but passionate hardcore base who play the game, and with the Olympics on the horizon, it will now get access to state funding. This could be a game changer for other nations too.
For Chadwick, this means that the pressure is now on cricket to show that it can become truly global.
“It’s now a case of converting theory into reality as cricket needs to stimulate participation, draw audiences and attract partners and then sustain its commercial performance,” he said.
“Inclusion in the Olympics is as much a challenge to improve and develop as it is an opportunity.”