By TIM WIGMORE
NELSON, New Zealand — Before the 2015 Cricket World Cup started, the chief executive of the International Cricket Council envisioned how the sport could grow beyond its traditional strongholds: by getting the world’s biggest economy involved.
“We would like the U.S. to qualify for a major world event within the next eight years or so,” said David Richardson, who leads cricket’s governing body. His words seem wholly consistent with the I.C.C.’s official mantra: to create “a bigger, better, global game.”
The actions of cricket’s ruling elite, though, are hard to reconcile with that creed.
Last year’s soccer World Cup featured 32 teams. At this year’s Rugby World Cup — a sport with a similar history to cricket and with a similar number of leading teams — 20 nations will take part.
“The number of teams fits with World Rugby’s vision of growing the game globally,” said James Fitzgerald, a World Rugby spokesman, who noted there is “a gradual closing of the performance gap between the qualifiers and the top sides.”
Cricket, however is taking a less inclusive approach and is alone among major international sports in contracting its biggest event. Just 14 teams are playing in this year’s tournament, which runs from Feb. 14 to March 28, down from the 16 that competed at the 2007 World Cup. The field will be reduced further in 2019, to just 10 nations.
The roots of the reduction go back to March 17, 2007, a day that sent shock waves through cricket. It featured two huge upsets at the World Cup in the West Indies, with Ireland beating Pakistan and Bangladesh knocking off India.
Not that cricket officials were celebrating. The results meant that India and Pakistan did not make it out of the group stages, and the India-Pakistan match planned for the next round never materialized.
Sponsors were aghast. While the I.C.C. had already sold all the television rights to the tournament, its commercial partners, who had signed up expecting that India would play at least nine matches, suffered huge losses. The value of television advertising during matches slumped without India taking part.
The commercial disaster was a reflection of cricket’s deeply unbalanced economy, with some estimating that more than 70 to 80 percent of the revenue is being generated by India.
So when the format for future World Cups was being designed, the I.C.C. knew what sponsors wanted: a guarantee that India would be far more involved in the tournament than it was in 2007. The I.C.C. set about designing a format to ensure that India played as many matches as possible, even if it performed poorly.
In this year’s tournament, as in 2011, a convoluted group stage is being used, with two groups of seven playing a combined 42 games to determine the eight quarterfinalists. While this leads to far fewer high-tension games than in soccer’s World Cup — the 2010 champion Spain was knocked out after two losses in group stage in 2014 — it also ensures that all competing nations play at least six cricket matches.
If it seems like a format designed for Indian television, it will be even more so in the next World Cup.
In 2019, all 10 teams will play each other once in a marathon 45-game group stage, with the top four teams progressing to the semifinals.
The television rights for the eight-year cycle of I.C.C. events were recently sold for an estimated $2 billion. The prospect of India playing a guaranteed nine games in the 2019 and 2023 World Cups — including against Pakistan — helped to drive this record sum.
In 2014, the I.C.C. was restructured to give India, England and Australia far greater power and revenue, which was justified on the grounds that these nations, especially India, drive cricket’s economy. Shrinking the size of the World Cup to please the Indian market prioritized the short-term enrichment of the wealthiest cricketing nations over the long-term investment of growing the game globally. So too did the decision to award the three showpiece I.C.C. events — the World Twenty20, the Champions Trophy and the Cricket World Cup — exclusively to the Big Three nations in the future. (This year’s World Cup is being co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand.)
Compare that to rugby, which awarded the 2019 World Cup to Japan, even though it is not a premier country yet in the sport.
“It was a longer-term development decision aimed at growing the game in Japan and throughout Asia, where there is huge potential,” said Fitzgerald. “The true impact may only really be felt further down the line.”
Cricket, however, seemingly is putting up a white flag on its ambitions of becoming a global game. Ireland has been the most successful nation outside of the 10 official Test teams in the last decade, and on the third day of the World Cup, on Feb. 16, it continued its tradition of upsets when it beat West Indies, a two-time former champion, in their opening match.
Yet the Irish are at grave risk of missing out in 2019. The top eight teams in the world rankings qualify automatically, but Ireland gets so few matches against these top teams — just nine one-day internationals between 2011 and 2015 — that it will have to advance in the qualifying tournament.
“A 10-team World Cup is wrong. We seem to be the only sport that believes every participant must be a contender for the event, as opposed to competitive,” says Warren Deutrom, the chief executive of Cricket Ireland. “The cricket establishment views matches featuring its smaller nations as a distraction from the serious business of the tournament, and is wary of the impact that upsets might have on the commercial value of the sport.”
Appeasing India isn’t just questionable on a sporting basis. Cricket also puts itself at risk by being over-reliant on one giant country.
If cricket’s popularity ever erodes in India — FIFA, the ruling body of soccer, has referred to it as a “sleeping giant,” and the Indian Super League saw relative success in its inaugural season late last year — it would prove a real threat to the I.C.C.’s well-being.
“A 10-team format is a regressive step motivated only by financial considerations and greed,” said Ehsan Mani, who was president of the I.C.C. from 2003 to 2006. “Even here the I.C.C.’s thinking is seriously flawed. As the custodian of the game, it has an obligation to strengthen and grow the game around the world. This requires vision and putting the interest of the global game before the financial benefits to the 10 full-member countries and, in particular, to England, India and Australia.”
The plans “will seriously hamper the sport from spreading and strengthening its roots in countries which have an enormous potential, both in the t
erms of participation and financial benefits for all I.C.C. members. When a non-full member qualifies for the World Cup, it receives a tremendous boost in terms of following, participation, funding from government, investment for infrastructure and much more.”
Mahela Jayawardene, the former captain of the Sri Lankan team that is now ranked No. 4 in the world, is opposed to shrinking the field, too. “I was asked about the 2019 World Cup being trimmed before, and I said no to that,” he said Sunday in Dunedin. “I think Sri Lanka got that opportunity in 1975, before we were a Test nation. If we hadn’t had that opportunity, we probably wouldn’t have been here.”