The eighth edition of the Rugby World Cup is underway, having kicked off at the iconic Twickenham stadium on 18th September. The tournament will go on for six weeks and will feature 48 matches to be played in England and Wales.
As has been the case since 2003, 20 nations divided into four groups of five each are taking part in the quadrennial event. The defending champions are the New Zealand All Blacks, who won their second title on home soil by defeating France in a gripping final in 2011.
I admit that I am far from fully understanding even the simpler rules of rugby, but as a cricket fan, it is interesting to draw comparisons between the two games. Both cricket and rugby can be said to be played by a similar number of top tier nations and the reach of the game in both cases is very much alike.
Rugby’s traditional top eight, consisting of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France, can be equated with cricket’s very own top eight – rugby’s first four, plus India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the West Indies. Argentina in rugby can be considered at a similar level to Bangladesh in cricket, and both are evidently on the rise.
Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and Japan may correspond with Zimbabwe, Ireland, Afghanistan and Netherlands. Yet in spite of the analogies, the existing situation regarding the game’s growth could not have been more different in the two cases.
While rugby is looking to spread its wings beyond the traditional strongholds, cricket on the contrary is leaving no stone unturned in maintaining its closed-shop status quo.
One of the reasons I will be closely following the Rugby World Cup is that it will be a true spectacle of how a purported global sport ought to showcase itself on the world stage.
Of the 20 participating teams, no more than six can be considered as true title contenders. But that has not stopped World Rugby from striving for fair inclusion of the lower-rung nations, unlike the hollow, hypocritical ICC.
Especially in the past few years, the International Cricket Council has time and again disgusted cricket lovers with their short-sighted and greed-driven decision-making. The absolute control of the board is now in the hands of the so-called ‘big three’ of India, England and Australia.
Commercialism and broadcasting interests have taken complete precedence over the game’s larger benefit. Power-crazy politicians at the BCCI have managed to reign supreme over the cricketing world.
With the other two bigwigs, namely England and Australia, now firmly part of their cartel, almost every decision at the ICC is taken keeping in mind India’s vested interests.
At the other end of the spectrum, the non-Test nations continue to get a raw deal and their existence is almost immaterial to the men who unfortunately run the game we love.
Just a couple of months ago, the ICC confirmed that the 2019 World Cup will consist of just ten teams. Seldom has such an atrocious decision been taken in international sport.
Shockingly, on the other hand, we are reminded about how the ICC is committed towards the development of the game and how ‘meritocracy’ is the central theme of everything it does.
It is almost as if they are deriving sadistic pleasure in making a complete mockery of the millions of cricket lovers who want their game to spread to far-flung corners. Truth be told, being a cricket fan has never been more embarrassing.
With the Rugby World Cup beckoning, one cannot help but feel envious of how World Rugby is managing its sport. If cricket is to become a global game in the true sense, rugby can well serve as an inspiration on many counts.
In my opinion, the following five facets aptly underline the stark difference between the attitude of cricket administrators and their rugby counterparts. These are the areas where cricket is severely letting itself down, and I have attempted to describe how the ICC should take a leaf out of rugby’s book in order to win back the faith of many of the game’s genuine followers.
1) World Cup qualification and hosting
In every Rugby World Cup tournament, the top twelve teams, i.e the top three teams in each group, get direct qualification into the next World Cup. In the four-year period in between, every other member nation gets an opportunity to take one of the remaining eight spots available through a structured qualification process.
There are 102 member nations under World Rugby at present and each of them have a fair chance of moving up the rankings and strengthening their case for World Cup qualification. The ICC has an almost similar number of members – 105 to be precise – but there is no fixed criteria of gaining qualification.
While World Rugby at least merits teams that finish in the top twelve in every tournament, the ICC ensures that the ten full-member nations get automatic qualification irrespective of their preceding form or position at the previous World Cup.
To take but one example, Ireland finished higher than England at the 2015 World Cup, but that will count for absolutely nothing as far as the farcical 2019 edition is concerned.
Furthermore, the majority of the 105 ICC members have no scope whatsoever to qualify for the World Cup. The World Cricket League is limited to a maximum of 40 nations, leaving the remaining members in the lurch.
The need of the hour is to develop a region-based, divisional World Cup qualification system in every four-year cycle which would include each and every ICC member team except the hosts – whether full member or not – and would provide a fair chance to all teams irrespective of their ranking and ‘status’.
As it stands, the top eight ranked teams on the cut-off date of 30th September, 2017 will gain automatic qualification for 2019, leaving the have-nots to grapple with the ninth and tenth-ranked teams to decide the remaining two spots.
To top it off, there is a serious dearth of fixtures for the non-Test nations, meaning that they are not even getting a reasonable chance to prove their worth on a consistent basis.
In line with promoting the growth of the game, emerging nation Japan has been given the privilege of hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup. As I was writing this, Japan scored one of the greatest upsets by defeating two-time winners South Africa in their opening match, and they might well be a frontrunner when the Cup comes to home soil.
On the other hand, India will be hosting the 2023 ICC World Cup all by itself, with not even a single match allotted to the likes of Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Similarly, Ireland and Scotland were ignored while giving England the rights for 2019.
Giving World Cup matches to Ireland and Scotland could have provided a big boost to the growing cricket scene in the two countries – but the ECB of course would have none of it.
2) Number of teams in the World Cup
As mentioned above, the ICC has callously finalised that there will be no more than ten teams at the 2019 World Cup in England. This is a drastic reduction from the 14 teams included in the 2011 and 2015 editions, which in turn was reduction from 2007, when it had a record 16 teams.
But since bullyboys India were knocked out in the group stage of the 2007 World Cup, the BCCI whinged, flexed their muscles and managed to influence the changing of the format in 2011.
The initial plan was to have a ten-team Cup in 2015 itself, but the ICC had to backtrack after protests stemming from Ireland’s historic win over England in 2011. However this time around, the cronies and their stooges at the ICC have had their way – ostensibly at the behest of the ECB.
Without the slightest of concern for thousands of budding youngsters aspiring to play for their nation at the highest level, they have literally shut the door for the Associate and Affiliate members. And this in spite of a highly creditable collective performance from the four Associates in the 2015 World Cup.
The general justification for reducing the number of teams is that the World Cup should only have the best teams and that the level of competition should not be compromised. Whatever happened to the romance of an upset? Or to the oft-repeated claims of ‘meritocracy’?
The argument falls flat on its face when one considers the fact that had it not been for a few thrillers involving Associate teams, the 2015 World Cup would have been pretty much a drab affair. This goes to show that the real reason behind the actions of the ICC is nothing but the insecurity of the ‘elite’.
Thus there is a very strong possibility that there will not be a single Associate team in the 2019 World Cup. The two-fold motive of the ten-team round-robin ‘World Cup’ is to pander to the broadcasters and to ensure that India gets a minimum of nine matches.
In the same year that rugby will proudly showcase its inclusiveness, cricket will serve as a pathetic endorsement of how the lure of money has no limits whatsoever and how the fans – the biggest stakeholders of the game – can be repeatedly taken for a ride.
The contrast between the two will grow even further come 2023, if a proposal to increase the number of teams in the Rugby World Cup to 24 is finalised. If not that many, a proper World Cup in a sport such as cricket needs to have a bare minimum of 14 teams and preferably 15 to 16 teams. Anything less than that is akin to a travesty.
3) World Cup format
The 2019 ICC World Cup will feature the ten teams playing each other once in a long-drawn league phase. While the number of teams have been reduced, the number of days will actually be three more than were in the 2015 edition – yet another fact that exposes the sheer hypocrisy of the ICC.
In my opinion, a rugby-style format featuring 15 teams will best suit a true Cricket World Cup. In the format that I am suggesting, there shall be three groups of five teams each, which means each team shall play four group matches and a total of 30 group matches to be played.
A hypothetical example would read as follows: Group A – Australia, Pakistan, West Indies, Afghanistan, Scotland; Group B – India, South Africa, England, Zimbabwe, UAE; Group C – New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Ireland, Papua New Guinea.
The top two teams from each group and the two best third-place finishers shall contest the quarter-finals, which shall be followed by the semifinals, a third-place playoff and the final.
A total of 38 matches with a maximum of seven for one team – the same as in rugby and football World Cups. On paper, what is not to like? It will be a crisp, compact and competitive tournament which will hold the attention of followers until the very end.
4) Abolishment of ‘status’
Between November 2008 and November 2014, the Cyprus rugby team quietly notched a new world record by winning 24 consecutive Test matches. Interestingly, Cyprus is not even a member of World Rugby and hence neither do they feature in the rankings nor are they eligible for World Cup qualification.
Yet, in spite of this apparent unfairness, every match that Cyprus plays against another nation is a full-fledged international Test match. There is no bias depending upon the ranking or infrastructure of any particular nation. Every match played with the prescribed rules between two nations is a Test, as it ought to be.
Again, cricket fails miserably in his regard. A vast majority of matches involving two nations are not even classified as ‘first-class’ or ‘List A’ (official domestic matches), let alone as official internationals.
It is ludicrous that Test match cricket remains the privilege of less than ten percent of the total ICC membership. The imperialistic status-based bifurcation is a gross injustice to the countless number of players who do not enter the international record books despite playing for their country.
The scenario with ODI cricket is hardly any better, with only 16 teams eligible to play this format at any point of time. Cricket is the only sport where most matches involving two nations are not counted as official international matches, which is an absurd logic to say the least.
To take the example of Cyprus in rugby, of course they achieved their record streak while playing against teams of a similar level. But every match was played in accordance with the international rules and hence were rightly considered for the record books.
Likewise, every cricketing nation should be eligible to play an official international match in any format against any other nation. I cannot see the problem here – for instance, no one is compelling Australia to play Vanuatu or India to play Malaysia.
However, why should there be a restriction on the match being official when say, Vanuatu play against Malaysia? At the end of the day, a country versus country fixture in any format should be nothing less than an official international, as long as the standard international regulations are followed.
Thus in an ideal world, the tags of ‘full-member’, ‘Associate’ and ‘Affiliate’ ought to be done away with. There is no question of ‘diluting the record books’ as any two countries ought to be given the right to arrange a match between themselves and call it an ‘international’, just as in rugby.
5) Regional rivalries
The premier rugby nations indulge in highly-anticipated regional battles every year. While the European sextet of England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France and Italy contest the Six Nations, the Southern hemisphere quartet of New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina challenge each other in the Rugby Championship.
These tournaments have gone on to create a healthy regional rivalry among the nations and thus there is a huge amount of relevance attached to these fixtures. Unfortunately the regional rivalry aspect has rarely been taken seriously as far as cricket is concerned.
In limited-overs cricket, the Asia Cup is perhaps the only exception. In Test cricket, Australia and New Zealand face each other far less than they ought to. Due to political reasons, India and Pakistan have not played against each other for quite some time.
In the absence of regional contests, Test cricket is slowly becoming one-dimensional. England versus Ireland in Test cricket is an exciting prospect, but Ireland are being made to go through hurdle after hurdle to attain their much-deserved chance to play at the highest level.
While a regional tournament is not feasible for Test cricket, it can certainly suit the ODI format. Annual continental tournaments would go a long way in creating much-needed relevance to limited-overs cricket.
An Asian Championship involving India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and a qualifier; an Austral-Afro Championship involving Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Zimbabwe and a qualifier and an Euro-Rica Cup involving England, West Indies, Ireland, Scotland and a qualifier would be a welcome development.
Keeping in mind the existing state of affairs, all of the above points obviously seem way too far-fetched. However, small steps can be surely be taken, if – and it is a very big if – the ICC do plan to actually care for the game’s development in the near future.
For starters, how about continuing with the current World Cup format? Or awarding Test status to Ireland as early as possible? If the ICC indeed wish for cricket to be a global sport, they must stop their nauseating hypocrisy and get their act together.
As the above comparison suggests, rugby’s model of success can serve as an ideal template in more ways than one.