Last week Lalit Modi said in an interview that international cricket doesn't matter anymore to cricket fans. While his statement, like most other things he says, was a bit of a hyperbole, one can't deny the fact that international cricket is suffering from a severe identity crisis. For a casual fan, a compressed Twenty20 (T20) league, which has a beginning and an end, is more intriguing than an international calendar where the only context is historical rivalries. To make matters worse, this calendar is as stable as the price of Bitcoin on a fast trading day.
The recent decision to convert ICC ODI Champions Trophy 2021 into World T20, the second in two years, is only par for the course for ICC which is in a perennial state of confusion over cricket rules, code of conduct, membership, and its calendar. Cricket is a game that is centuries old, but somehow it is always eager to redress and repackage itself like a confused teenager going through adolescence.
In October last year, ICC formally announced the idea of a Test Championship and an ODI League in a bid to restore some context to international games. It also pledged to safeguard the interest of longer formats of the game that are getting pummelled currently by the popularity of T20 leagues. Now, only months later, ICC has scrapped the upcoming edition of Champions Trophy that had a very successful run in its last edition, raising question marks over its commitment to making ODI cricket viable.
While Test cricket survives mostly on bilateral rivalries, like the Ashes and Border-Gavaskar Trophy that are still keenly contested, bilateral ODI series struggles to capture the interest of fans. ODI format needs its marquee contests like the World Cup and Champions Trophy to stay relevant.
ICC CEO, Dave Richardson, defended the move by saying the Champions Trophy was far too similar to the World Cup. The argument falls flat even if you ignore the fact that instead of what they call similar events, ICC will now host completely identical events in consecutive years. If you ask fans, with whom ICC is wholly disconnected, many of them will tell you that they enjoy Champions Trophy more than the ICC World Cup.
The World Cup has often been criticised for being too lengthy. The upcoming edition in 2019 will run for one and a half month while the previous version of Champions Trophy lasted only 18 days. Fans often get worn out by the time a one-and-a-half-month-long tournament reaches its business end, while Champions Trophy's pace keeps them on the edge throughout its duration. Fans often follow not just teams that they support but also other matches that frequently end up having a bearing on their team's fortunes.
Off late ICC has been holding too firmly on the buzzword of spreading the game. The move to grant T20 status to all of its 104 members is another step in that direction. However, one fells that the ICC was better off supporting cricket at the grassroots in Associate countries, developing regional rivalries, and broadcasting tournaments like ICC World Cup qualifiers. That, perhaps, would have helped Associate members take that leap into the next tier.
The move to allow T20 status to all Associate members might also be ICC's way of overcompensating for the ten-team 50-over World Cup next year. Zimbabwe's Sikander Raza gave a poignant speech after winning the Man of the Series award in World Cup qualifier tournament last month. He talked about broken dreams and unfulfilled promises of a game that was supposed to unite the nations instead of dividing them. While the speech casts ICC's decision to play a ten-team World Cup in bad light, it also shows how players from Associate nations are still keen to play the 50-over game, and the accolades achieved in this format are still cherished.
Despite the push from T20 leagues around the world, international cricket is still the pinnacle of the game. ICC needs to have a calendar that strikes the right balance between various forms of game. More importantly, it needs to stick to this calendar and make sure that the fans, who start looking forward to an upcoming tournament years in advance, aren't shocked by any last-minute change of plans.