Money, power and time: Is the future of 50-over cricket on the line?

With the increasing lure of franchise cricket, shortening attention spans and the uneven distribution of money – the future of 50-over cricket hangs in the balance.

Cricket - ICC Cricket World Cup 2023 - Final - India v Australia - Narendra Modi Stadium, Ahmedabad, India - November 19, 2023 India's Virat Kohli looks dejected as he walks past the ICC Cricket World Cup trophy during the medal ceremony REUTERS/Andrew Boyers TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
It's uncertain whether India stars Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma will get a chance to lift the ICC Cricket World Cup trophy [Andrew Boyers/Reuters]

After 45 days and 48 matches, India’s biggest cricket party ended with a crushing blow by a ruthless Australian team that somehow ends up playing, and winning, practically every other World Cup final.

When the dust settles on how and why India lost, the analysis will inevitably return to the sustainability and relevance of the 50-over format of cricket. At a time when attention spans appear to be diminishing and T20 cricket continues on its inexorable domination of the sport’s calendar, the future of one-day internationals (ODI) will once again be under the hammer.

The ICC Cricket World Cup traditionally heralds the beginning of cricket’s four-year cycle, laid out in the form of the Future Tours Programme (FTP) which comprises major bilateral series and ICC tournaments. But cricket is changing at a rapid pace, largely because of the exponential growth of T20 cricket and its ever-increasing impact on all other aspects of the sport.

Money, money, money

When the decision-makers sit down to ponder cricket’s future and distribute the next round of broadcast rights money from the International Cricket Council (ICC), one thing is for certain: the richest will get richer and the poorest might be a bit less poor.

While the ICC declines to make its revenue-distribution model public, several reports have detailed the carve-up of what is believed to be a projected $600m in annual earnings, increasing from approximately $400m in the period from 2017 to 2023, driven by new broadcast rights deals. India is by far the biggest winner, set to gain around 38.5 percent ($231m) of the ICC’s net surplus commercial income.

England (6.89 percent) and Australia (6.25 percent) are the next biggest winners, while the other nine full member nations will receive between 4.73 percent (New Zealand) and 2.8 percent (Afghanistan).

The remaining 11.19 percent, or around $67.19m, will be distributed among the 94 associate member nations.

The criteria for the new model’s weighting includes a country’s cricket history, its performance in ICC events and its contribution to the world governing body’s commercial earnings.

The implications of this new world order are obvious – while all nations will receive increased funding, the financial playing field is far from level.

The powerful Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has long argued that the distribution of funds should reflect India’s overwhelming contribution to cricket’s global economy, making it increasingly harder for smaller nations to keep up with its financial strength.

Twenty countries will compete in next year’s T20 World Cup in the United States and the Caribbean, while the 2027 World Cup will comprise 14 nations. How several of those countries – many of them still semi-professional – will compete with richer nations poses an ongoing question.

“You only have to look at the finances to see we are not talking about level playing fields,” former Netherlands player and current high-performance manager Roland Lefebvre said.

“Low-ranked Ireland will get $18m, while the Netherlands and the other top associate teams might be lucky to get $2m next year. From these amounts, they have to professionalise, create and organise competitions, and prepare cricketers for qualifiers and eventual ICC events.”

Lefebvre said that the difference with full members is stark.

“With full members, it doesn’t matter what they do. They can lose every match and they will get their money and it won’t have an effect on their full member status,” he said.

“But with associate countries, there’s something at stake in every tournament.”

INTERACTIVE - Men's World Cup-prize-money-trophy-award-winner-2023-1695558421
(Al Jazeera)

How much is too much?

The number of ICC events and bilateral series across all formats, along with the proliferation of lucrative domestic T20 leagues, leaves cricket’s global schedule bursting at the seams. As a result, some countries will face difficult choices.

South Africa were one of the form teams of the World Cup, but they risked direct qualification for the tournament by forfeiting a bilateral ODI series against Australia earlier this year.

Cricket South Africa (CSA) needed their best players available for the inaugural SA20 domestic league, a tournament on which they had banked the farm, and were willing to relinquish the qualification points on offer in the series against Australia.

In February, South Africa will send a second-string Test side to New Zealand for a two-match series because it clashes with the second edition of the SA20.

Not only does this threaten to downgrade the quality of the series, should South Africa lose both matches, it could damage their qualification chances for the World Test Championship Final in 2025.

That a board would prioritise their own domestic competition over international cricket and the prospect of participating in marquee ICC events is a stark example of how a paucity of funding may increasingly undermine the international game.

CSA are in a bind, struggling financially but still endeavouring to compete at the highest level. Sending a significantly weaker team on a Test tour would have once been unthinkable; that they are willing to do so sends a warning signal to the game at large.

Former Test captain Graeme Smith, who is the SA20 league commissioner, explained the stark choices CSA faces to Wisden Cricket Monthly magazine earlier this year.

“You want to see [Test cricket] strong, you want to see it played. But when a CEO or an entity is under financial stress, they will always make the decisions that can financially strengthen their game,” said Smith.

Cricket’s exclusive club

The Netherlands were one of the success stories of the World Cup despite their bottom-of-the-table finish. They were the only associate member to qualify for the tournament, edging out full member countries – the West Indies, Zimbabwe and the Republic of Ireland – despite receiving considerably less funding.

They proved to be worthy participants with victories over South Africa and Bangladesh and competitive performances against other teams. They have qualified for next year’s T20 World Cup, but aside from that tournament, the possibility of them playing other top sides currently looks bleak.

The ICC has discontinued the ODI World Super League (WSL), the system for deciding World Cup qualification through bilateral series that gave the Dutch valuable experience. In the next league cycle, they will drop down to the Cricket World Cup League 2 (CWCL2) to play other associate teams in a relegation of sorts.

Only 12 ODIs are scheduled each year in the CWCL2 and there is little incentive for full member nations to play these sides.

“The full members don’t give a hoot about association cricket and inclusion,” said Lefebvre. “We have performed incredibly well on a shoestring budget and prepared our players and been consistent. We’ve achieved enormously well, and to downgrade associate cricket and push it aside is completely wrong.”

Lefebvre said scrapping the Super League was down to commercial reasons.

Despite recent reports suggesting the WSL could be reinstated, Al Jazeera understands there is no proposal due to be tabled at the ICC board meeting after the World Cup.

Cricket Australia CEO Nick Hockley believes the game needs to protect bilateral cricket and give it meaningful context.

“You’ve seen some emerging cricketing countries come in do and do well, like the Netherlands, and equally seen some established countries miss out,” said Hockley.

“With an expanded T20 World Cup, there are more opportunities for emerging nations to compete on the world stage.”

(Al Jazeera)

‘Fast-changing landscape’

Meanwhile, multi-year contracts may be an increasing trend as boards try to stave off the lure of lucrative franchise tournaments such as the Indian Premier League (IPL).

In the midst of England’s dismal World Cup campaign, in which the defending champions won just three matches, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) announced central contracts for all but one squad member along with other Test and T20 players. Several players received two or three-year deals for the first time.

Cricket Australia have offered longer-term deals in the past, and Hockley says the recently negotiated memorandum of understanding and increased salary caps for its domestic men’s T20 league, the BBL, are key to retaining the best players.

“There’s more investment coming to cricket than ever before, which shows the appeal of the sport,” Hockley said. “We’re in a really competitive sports and entertainment landscape. In Australia, we’re making sure we’re structuring our contracts in a way where our top players are the best-paid sports people in Australia. We’ve increased the salary caps for both the women’s and men’s T20 leagues because we need to be globally competitive. It’s a fast-changing landscape.”

Private equity is spreading throughout the world. IPL franchises own all six teams in the SA20 and several teams in the established Caribbean Premier League and in the ILT20 and MLC, tournaments played in the UAE and the US for the first time this year.

Wealthier boards such as CSA and the ECB have so far resisted private equity investment but, along with other boards, they face significant challenges to stay competitive in the market and retain players while ensuring international cricket remains the pinnacle of the sport.

By the time the next World Cup rolls around in 2027, we may be looking at a very different cricket landscape but, as for the tournament itself, the man who lifted the trophy on Sunday hopes it remains intact.

“I must say, maybe because we won, but I did fall in love with ODIs again this World Cup,” Pat Cummins told reporters after the trophy presentation.

“I think the scenario where every game really matters, it does mean a bit different to just a bilateral. The World Cup’s got such rich history, I’m sure it’s going to be around for a long time.”

Source: Al Jazeera