Australia’s day: reflections on the Cricket World Cup

The Cricket World Cup ended on Sunday after seven weeks of thrills, records, frustrations, and the familiar sight of Australia as champions. Now, with a return to England looming in four years’ time, questions will be asked about its future.

Australia’s day: reflections on the Cricket World Cup

Major sporting tournaments are stories that few can resist interpreting as they unfold. This year’s Cricket World Cup, it turns out, was about Australia all along.

It has been an extraordinary summer for cricket’s most successful nation, one which began with a country united in mourning by the tragic on-field death of batsman Phil Hughes and which ends in the communal ecstasy of a fifth world title. And for the bigger of the two co-hosts, whose team saw off partners New Zealand with unexpected ease in front of a record 93,013 fans in Sunday’s final, the event also marked the end of an 18-month journey back from incoherence to supremacy.

The last time the International Cricket Council (ICC) held a one-day international tournament, the Champions Trophy in England in June 2013, Australia were awful. They avoided defeat just once in three games, when rain spared them against New Zealand. With the national team in disarray, Australian cricketing culture fell into pessimistic introspection.

The point at which Australia’s fortunes ticked upwards is not hard to plot. Two weeks before the first of two back-to-back Ashes series, Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland sacked head coach Mickey Arthur and brought in the jovial but shrewdly competitive Darren Lehmann. The decision was not long in the planning – Sutherland’s office rescheduled an interview with SportsPro that morning at two hours’ notice – and critics saw it as one last attempt by the top of CA’s leadership to save their own skin. But seldom has a coaching change produced a more profound effect.

Another announcement, at the start of that turbulent month, also bore the seeds of Australian cricket’s summer of bloom. CA signed a pair of domestic TV deals, worth a combined AUS$840 million (US$643 million at today’s rates) over five years. Channel Nine retained the rights to home international cricket, continuing a 34-year partnership. Less expected was an agreement with Channel Ten that also brought the Big Bash League – a T20 franchise affair that began life on pay-TV channel Fox Sports – to free-to-air. “Cricket is the soul of summer – nothing beats it,” said Sutherland at the time. This year, with the domestic tournament a popular appetiser for the ICC’s cricketing feast, it has been hard to argue with that.

But as the victors scribble down their history it is important to recall the rest of the plot. For both hosts, the tournament exceeded expectations. New Zealand, normally a rugby-crazed nation, was entranced by the exploits of its ‘Black Caps’. The final may have brought disappointment but for most, memories of victory in an electrifying semi-final with South Africa at Auckland’s sold-out Eden Park will provide some solace.

Particularly with Australia’s massive grounds in play, there was an opportunity for local organisers to deliver record attendance figures – which they duly did, bringing over a million spectators through the gates for the first time in the tournament’s history. For the ICC, commercial success was already guaranteed on the way in – sponsorship and broadcast inventory is sold in eight-year cycles against all of cricket’s global events. But with a new cycle now to begin, the governing body moved quickly to highlight its achievements this time around.

“The ICC’s proactive digital enhancement has attracted an unprecedented 36 million unique visitors to its website to date and has accumulated over 300 million page views,” said ICC chairman N Srinivasan in a statement issued after the final. “This represents a tenfold increase on any previous ICC event. A further positive development was the official tournament app, which has been downloaded more than 4.5 million times and has been the number-one sports app in no fewer than 48 countries.”

Twitter, which had heavily trailed the tournament in its early stages, recorded 1.38 billion impressions of tweets with the official hashtag #CWC2015. Host broadcaster Star Sports delivered suitably polished coverage, picked up by 44 licensees in seven languages across 220 territories, and every Indian appearance at least will have drawn a nine-figure global audience. ICC chief executive David Richardson hailed “the most followed and best attended cricket event in history”.

New Zealand fans cheered their team, arguably the most exciting in the tournament, all the way to the final (Andy Brownbill/AP/Press Association Images)

Yet Srinivasan was booed by the Melbourne Cricket Ground crowd when he appeared to present the trophy, while opprobrium has rained down on Richardson through the late southern-hemisphere summer. Cricket is growing steadily as a commercial proposition but, increasingly, fans do not trust its administrators with the game's development.

There are several sources of irritation but the most visible sore has been formed by the ICC plan to cut the next World Cup from 14 teams to ten teams. The world’s top eight will get an automatic invitation, with ten more pitched into a 2018 qualifying tournament in Bangladesh, but the move looks certain to freeze out emerging nations in the short term. The ICC has committed US$300 million over eight years to Associate members – those just beyond the Test-playing top ten – and has made the right noises about providing ‘opportunities to play’, but its actions ring louder. It is unique among global sporting bodies in reducing places at its marquee event, just as it is in its aversion to Olympic entry.

Predictably it is the leading Associate teams who have been most vocal in their opposition, with Ireland players, whose three wins took them close to a quarter-final place, lining up to condemn the ICC leadership. Retired greats like Sachin Tendulkar also spoke out - mindful, perhaps, of the sport at which they excelled becoming a minority pursuit in global terms. The row even undermined one of the great feel-good stories of modern sport: the public relations free-hit of Afghanistan’s thrilling debut.

The mooted format has emerged from ICC negotiations with its worldwide TV partner, India’s Star Sports, and it guarantees more meetings between cricket’s best-supported nations. But on a sporting and commercial level, it is flawed. All ten teams will play in a single first-round group, meaning nine games apiece before the semi-finals in a competition which will grow beyond its already bloated seven weeks. That compares unfavourably with the punchy eight-team Champions Trophy, which rattles through in three weeks with few dead rubbers. Often beset by existential angst in the T20 age, cricket’s 50-over mode has perhaps rediscovered some of its mojo in recent weeks but the current proposals make it difficult to understand the purpose of its showpiece.

Afghanistan won plenty of friends on their Cricket World Cup debut and beat Scotland in the group stage (AP Photo/Dianne Manson)

In looking to its bigger footballing cousin, the ICC would also see the rewards for greater vision. The Fifa World Cup endured opposition to its steady expansion to 32 finalists, and teams from beyond the game’s heartlands were routinely embarrassed. Today their presence is not only competitive, but lucrative. According to a report by Inside World Football, less than 50 per cent of TV revenues from the 2014 World Cup came from Europe, while income rose significantly from Asia, north Africa, and North America.

There is a point at which pragmatism becomes self-defeating. That much might be learned from the hosts of the next Cricket World Cup. For much of the 21st century the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has enjoyed unprecedented success but since that Champions Trophy it staged with aplomb back in June 2013, it has stumbled from disappointment to disaster. England’s meek first-round exit produced one of the more dispiriting Cricket World Cup statistics – that Australia have now won four world titles since their bitter rivals last won a knock-out game – and it also inspired a period of renewed soul-searching back home.

Ten years on from a freely televised Ashes win that literally brought people to the streets of London in celebration, English cricket has come to question its place. TV deals with Sky Sports have nourished the sport at grassroots and elite level but in leaning on its strengths, the ECB has incubated weaknesses. Participation levels are down, at least at traditional cricket clubs rather than in small-sided evening leagues, England’s poor form hit ticket sales last year, and the county game remains riven with inequality and loaded with debt. Just as pertinently, there is a sense that the sport is receding from its traditional place in the mainstream.

Change may come. With the long-serving Giles Clarke now ECB president and essentially serving as an envoy to the ICC, incoming ECB chairman Colin Graves has declared that no topic will be off-limits in discussions about the sport’s future. He will be flanked by a more youthful new executive team – 42-year-old former IMG man Tom Harrison is now chief executive, while Sanjay Patel became commercial director last year. Of course, it is the team on the field that will matter to most, but these are the men charged with bringing English cricket back to the public while ensuring its financial health.

That will be no mean feat but the Cricket World Cup will now focus minds. However it is composed, it brings the hope of a golden summer and the fear of a major opportunity lost. The UK is enjoying an outstanding decade as a sporting host – from London 2012 to this year’s Rugby World Cup and beyond – and cricket has the chance to end it in style. 

Whether it will is another story.