There was probably a time when streets would wear a deserted look whenever the Indian cricket team made their way into the ground for any of their matches. People gathering around small electronic shops to get a glimpse of the action was a common sight and the question whether Sachin Tendulkar was still in the crease or not would often decide whether one is likely to continue watching the match. In fact those were the good old days for cricket as a game.
Although there isn’t any doubt that the sport still remains more than a religion in India and the subcontinent, cricket certainly doesn’t seem to be heading into the right direction as far as popularity of the game is concerned.
With the race to the semifinals heating up in the ICC Cricket World Cup, there are certain questions, which still loom high – the most important one being whether the tournament should be termed a ‘World Cup’?
Well, with 10 teams, of which five are South Asian nations, how can it be termed a World Cup? Despite this fact, it would be harsh to take credit away from teams like Afghanistan and the West Indies who have managed to qualify after a long process. In fact, this is for the first time that the two-time champions had to play qualifiers in order to secure a place in the coveted tournament.
If we take a close look at this edition of the World Cup, much has gone according to expected lines which certainly isn’t a very good sign for a sport which has seen a decline in popularity of late.
At a time when 50-over cricket is in a shaky situation, organising a tournament in England and Wales – where rainfall during this part of the year doesn’t justify the cause. The recent washouts have certainly been a dampener.
As far as the matches are concerned, everyone wants to see a competitive game but apart from a few, every match has turned out to be a one-sided affair. The major upset so far has been the exit of South Africa from the semifinal race. The Proteas, ranked third in the ICC ODI rankings, have managed to win only one match in the tournament so far.
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Afghanistan, with seven defeats in as many matches are also out of the reckoning for the semifinals.
However, as expected, Australia – which didn’t have the best of run coming down into the biggest showpiece event seem to have peaked at the right time. Led by opener Aaron Finch, the Aussies have yet again proved why they always remain a force to reckon with in the biggest stage. Barring the blip against India, they have looked to be a team in form and have rightly earned their place in the semis.
Now coming into the Indian point of view, the Men in Blue are placed at the number two spot in the points table. India needs to win just another of their remaining three matches to finalise their semifinal spot. The Indian team, which is unbeaten in the tournament so far, will be facing England, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. While the India vs England match is expected to be a tough contest, the remaining matches look much easier to win, going by India’s current performance.
New Zealand have put up a fantastic display and they just need one more win to reach the semifinals.
Now coming back into the overall status of the game, while it is still the biggest sport in the country by quite some margin, younger audiences don’t appear to be taking to the game in such large numbers as before. The interest level among fans has significantly dropped over the years owing to the fact that so many India matches are taking place. It is not that they have lost interest in the game or the team but they prioritise which matches to watch nowadays.
As far as Test cricket is concerned, television images showing men in white running around in empty stadiums has been the case which highlights Test cricket’s dwindling popularity while ODIs too aren’t attracting the same amount of crowds as it used to once upon a time. A decade or so ago, all stadiums were full for ODIs and there were decent crowds for Test matches as well.
If we take a close look in countries like South Africa, Australia, West Indies and to an extent England as well, the situation is even more worse. But, despite all the problems, the sport still continues to be fortunately fervently followed in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – which account for more than a quarter of the world’s population.
People aren’t eagerly looking forward to most matches of the team they support anymore, they await marquee contests. The current cricket calendar is over packed and interest of fans for non-marquee series is very much decreasing.
The fact that there are just 10 teams in the 2019 World Cup – down from 14 in the 2015 edition means emerging nations have been cut out and it is being played in the United Kingdom for the fifth time from 12 World Cups, a type of monopoly that doesn’t exist in other major sports.
Often referred by the young generations as “very or quite” boring, five-day cricket was the only international form of the game until 1971, when shorter matches were introduced that wrapped in a day.
In 2003, the first Twenty20 cricket match, a radically cut-down version, was played lasting about three hours. The simplified game has proved to be a hit with fans and broadcasters. With the Indian Premier League becoming an instant success, it has become a template for other nations. In 2011, Australia’s Big Bash League was founded and was able to win sponsorship deals from companies that wouldn’t dream of supporting Test cricket.
The availability of so many formats with slightly different rules has diluted the meaning of the game. Cricket needs to be careful that it doesn’t have too many formats and tweaks.
(The writer is an independent journalist based in Guwahati)