Any piece of writing that proposes to fix cricket must first tackle a fundamental question: Is cricket broken? The answer lies somewhere between yes and no. The ongoing men’s World Cup is a perfect example. There were a number of close, exciting matches that reaffirmed one’s love for the game. There were some upsets. The semi-final picture was not settled until the final week of the round-robin stage. The stands were full, belying the concern over the declining popularity of the game in the green and pleasant land in which it originated.
But the gulf in cricketing standards between the rich and poor nations that play the game was evident. The thrillers were the exception, not the norm. In the 27 unsuccessful chases in the league stage, the losing team came within 10 percent of the target 11 times; in the 14 successful chases, the end came in the final five overs only five times. The exciting cricket was mostly the consequence of pitches slowing down with use, and the toss and the ground conditions playing a major part. Teams that won the toss and batted first won 14 games and lost five. Only two targets above 250 were chased down. Only four targets below 250 were defended. Of these six matches, only Sri Lanka’s victory over England—and possibly Bangladesh chasing down 322 runs in 41.3 overs against the West Indies—could be considered an upset. A first-time winner is assured, but anyone who follows the sport would probably have correctly predicted the semi-finalists even before the tournament began.
There was also the ever-present reality that unlike most other sports, the world cups are being increasingly designed to restrict rather than enhance cricket’s global popularity. This was the smallest World Cup in 27 years, represented by fewer than ten percent of the members of the International Cricket Council. It turned out that even the large crowds at the stadiums were bolstered by two Indian fan groups that entered into a sweetheart deal with the ICC and sold over twenty thousand tickets for league matches. In England, the host nation, the matches could be viewed only on premium cable—the tournament broadcaster Sky, which has held the monopoly over rights to telecast English cricket since 2005. Consequently, the home team’s league matches were watched by an average domestic audience of just over half a million, as compared to the 11.7 million people who tuned in to the BBC to watch England lose to the United States in the semi-finals of the women’s football World Cup, on 2 July. It was on 5 July, two days after England qualified for the semi-finals, that Sky announced that it would allow the final to be shown on free-to-air television, if the home team were to qualify.
Like the rest of the world, cricket is at a late-capitalist phase in its history. An era of increasing globalisation—the ICC has added 79 new member countries since 1990—and revenues has given rise to monopolistic behaviour and regulatory capture by the three biggest entities in the business. The structure of the sport is being shaped to maximise profits for these big three—the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the England and Wales Cricket Board and Cricket Australia. This means a World Test Championship in which teams will play an unequal number of matches. This means a World Cup that was designed to maximise the number of India matches. This means the decimation of the talent pools of weaker teams as players are incentivised to pick the T20 franchise over the country. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations, an organisation that represents professional cricketers, 58.6 percent of players from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the West Indies, New Zealand and South Africa said they would consider rejecting a national contract, in favour of exclusively playing in domestic T20 leagues. National contracts for a team like the West Indies can often pay their players a quarter of the contract for Australian, English and Indian cricketers.
There are also fundamental sporting issues with cricket. Test batsmen seem to have lost the ability to bat time, which means that matches rarely last the full five days. Although run rates are the highest they have ever been, bowling strike rates—the average number of balls for the fall of each wicket—are the lowest in a century. One-day cricket continues to be plagued by what is known as the middle-overs problem, with long, dull periods of uncontested singles and defensive bowling over a major chunk of most innings. Over the years, the ICC has sought to address this problem, but its solutions have further destabilised the balance between bat and ball, the source of much debate among cricket fans. Fewer and fewer teams seem to be able to compete on the world stage; for every Bangladesh punching above its weight, there is a Sri Lanka in seemingly terminal decline. Add to this the deepening gulf between the sport’s haves and have-nots and the end result is too many matches devoid of interest and quality.