The Glitzy Indian Premier League reflects the lopsided nature of cricket today...
Cricket is not a "huge" sport on Bleacher Report, partly due to its largely American readership. While a few expatriates and foreign readers will occasionally read B/R articles on the sport, they will undoubtedly have other websites to follow their cricketing needs.
It might come as a surprise to some that the first "international" cricket match was played between teams from the United States and Canada in 1844. Neither of these nations is currently renowned for their cricket, as they are not full-members of the International Cricket Council and do not get to play Test Matches. Although they have qualified for a few major tournaments, these teams are largely considered "minnows" and are easy pickings for the higher ranked sides.
If you do not know the global structure of cricket, here is a short description. There are three categories of nations in cricket:
1. Full Members
These are the 10 nations that are allowed to play test matches (five day games with two innings per team, which are regarded as the "purest" form of cricket.) They automatically qualify for most of the major tournaments, including World Cups (50-over games or One Day International) and World T20 (20-over games). They tour each other regularly, although some are "more equal than others."
2. Associate Nations
These are nations which are not full members, but have organized cricket, usually meaning a structured national league. There are 36 of these.
3. Affiliate Nations
These are nations that play cricket as per ICC rules, but there is no approved organized structure. There are 60 affiliate nations.
Among the Associate and Affiliate nations, there is a league structure (the World Cricket League), which determines the ranking and likelihood of qualifying for ICC events. Also, some (six in total) of the higher-ranked teams have ODI-status, which means their 50-over games are equivalent to those between full members.
While the league structure is useful in making nations with similar skill-levels play against each other, it also makes it difficult for newly promoted teams to fare well at a higher division. Teams below Division Three or Four have matches few and far between and have no real hope of qualifying for the upcoming world cup.
Contrast that with the structure of World Football/Soccer. The only team guaranteed to play in the World Cup is the home team. Everyone else has to qualify. A series of good games can mean a relatively low-ranked team can qualify for the global extravaganza. (North Korea was ranked 105 and New Zealand was 78 in 2010; both qualified. The hosts, South Africa was 83rd in the world.) What that means is that every team has a chance to qualify, so nation's supporters have a reason to follow the qualifiers.
Now, that difference might be attributed to the difference in numbers of nations playing the sport and to the differences of the sports themselves. It must be relatively equal among the "full members," right?
There is a huge disparity even among the full members. Australia, England and India play test series of four or five games among themselves. Most other teams, however, are limited to playing two or three match series.
Then, there is club cricket. The cash-rich Indian Premier League has four out its nine teams playing in the Champions League T20. South Africa and Australia have two each.
Six more teams played in a separate qualifying round, of which two were English and New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the West Indies—the team that won the World T20 days ago—had one team each. Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, despite being full members and having T20 leagues, were not represented.
It doesn't help that the trio of India, England and Australia have the power to effectively control the decisions of the ICC—while England and Australia did have actual veto powers in the past, that has since been revoked, although the trio can still effectively "veto" things from a financial viewpoint.
Australia almost removed any chance of non-test playing teams to play in the 2015 World Cup, before finally settling on allowing two entrants. Co-hosts New Zealand were more open, with many of their officials saying that six would be an optimum number. Similarly, India has been adamant in its refusal to incorporate more umpire-assisting technology (the Decision Review System or DRS), which prevented the ICC from making it a universal presence.
What does it mean for cricket fans in other countries?
First, we are unlikely to see more full-members in the near future, as incorporating new teams in the test match schedule will reduce the ability of powerful teams from generating money from their T20 leagues.
Second, the WCL teams will continue to struggle for meager pickings in the world stage, as only few of them will be allowed to participate in major ICC events. Even the lower ranked full-members might become stratified, with only five or six teams playing most of the cricket.
Finally, the development of cricket will effectively come to a standstill as teams begin to stagnate in their stratified levels.
Is there hope? Yes, there always is.
There are two ways this can be prevented from happening. The first is by the ICC overhauling its own structure, so that a single nation or a small group of nations cannot hijack its decision making ability. The difficulty lies in convincing the powerful national cricket boards to agree to such an overhaul. The overhaul would have to address the issue of financially stronger boards using their contributions to influence decisions and also the increasing permeation of career politicians in the cricket boards themselves.
The second method would involve the lower-ranked nations being more active on their own, in order to get more competitive matches. While these would not get official ICC status, they would nonetheless contribute to the development of the sport. These games can be at both the national level and at the club level.
And here, I come full circle. The nations that played the first international cricket match are the ones best suited to manage this revival. While the USA and Canada are not the biggest cricketing nations, both countries have structured cricket organisations and a sizable population of expatriates who have an affinity for the sport. By reaching out to other non-test playing nations, they can form a competitive format of cricket that can add to the international cricket scene.
Yes, help will be required from the established cricketing nations, but it can be done. In fact, there are plans for a cash-rich American T20 league in the summer of 2013. And, with the introduction of artificial playing surfaces, it will certainly bring twists in the old-school traditions of the sport.
And if the USA can start a trend outside the full-members, other nations will definitely show interest. All that remains to be seen is the execution.