Pushing back the boundaries

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Scotland are due to play Holland this month, which could be an attractive football match, sure to draw a decent crowd to Hampden Park. And Canada are playing Kenya, which is more puzzling. What sport could that be? Not ice hockey, surely?

Actually, Scotland v Holland is not so hot a ticket. They meet on the Caribbean island of St Kitts, an agreeable enough setting but not too accessible for most Glaswegians. Also, the sport is cricket so it may not be headline news in either country. The same goes for Canada v Kenya, to be played in St Lucia. The folks in Moose Jaw and Mombasa are not expected to get very worked up about the lbw decisions. St Lucians may not be very thrilled about this fixture either.

Welcome to cricket’s World Cup, which starts on Tuesday with a rather more obvious fixture: West Indies, who are the hosts, against Pakistan. It is the ninth renewal of a tournament first held in 1975, when it culminated in a Lord’s final between West Indies and Australia, a contest still remembered as one of the greatest of all cricket matches.

That tournament established international one-day cricket (unheard of until 1971) as the most popular form of the game, one that has filled stadiums and TV screens and sustained this protean sport ever since. Doubtless there will be great contests again in 2007, to be followed with enthusiasm throughout the cricketing world.

But note that phrase: “the cricketing world”. No sport completely entrances the planet. Even during the football World Cup last summer, parts of the Philippines were said to be holding out. And South Americans take little notice of the Olympics.

Cricket spread with the British Empire, on which the sun famously never set, so it does in a sense cover the planet. Test cricket is played on all six continents (counting Guyana as South America and the rest of the Caribbean as North). It is, however, spread very thinly: there are just 10 teams. The same is supposed to go for those other British delicacies: Marmite and gentleman’s relish. That doesn’t stop them being tasty. And since cricket’s core market includes India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, numbers two, six and seven in the world population tables, it embraces a quarter of the planet’s inhabitants.

But cricket’s administrators are more ambitious than that. “No game can sustain itself in the long term if it is only played by 10 countries,” says Ehsan Mani, the former president of the International Cricket Council (ICC). This World Cup will be the first to include 16 teams. The problem is that there are only eight of any consequence so the first fortnight offers the dreary prospect of a succession of one-sided slaughters.

Rugby has similar problems. Its 2007 World Cup, centred on France this autumn, will have 20 teams, although – without a foothold in the subcontinent – rugby has a much smaller population base. Yet a cricket score in rugby is a slightly more appealing spectacle than a cricket match in which one side may be all out for a rugby score. Football’s World Cup lasts a month and the Olympics 16 days. The rugby World Cup is being stretched to 43 days. The cricket version lasts 47 days and will burble on until the final in Barbados on April 28.

International cricketers are overstretched anyway. The core England players, for instance, have had three weeks at home since September. Assuming they don’t lose to Kenya or Canada and slink home in a fortnight, they will return to England with the trees in leaf and another long summer, and winter, rushing towards them. For many, arriving in the Caribbean this week has felt less like the start of a sun-kissed fiesta than another tour of duty on the front line.

The players are expected to shut up, although Ricky Ponting, Australia’s captain, said this week that he thought the extra teams had no business being there. Michael Holding, the former West Indian fast bowler, supported this view: “What is gained by a team playing in the World Cup and getting absolutely hammered?” he asked.

This was brave of Holding, since he was giving an interview to the Royal Gazette in Bermuda. Nowhere is more excited about this event: Bermuda (pop: 60,000) is the smallest of the qualifiers. Most inhabitants of the other five minor countries (Kenya, Scotland, Ireland, Holland and Canada) are unaware of what’s happening and the cricket-loving minority are bracing themselves. World champions Australia are 500-1 on to beat Holland next weekend.

Malcolm Speed, ICC chief executive, insists the presence of these tiddlers (if one can use that word of Canada) is essential. “What we have sought to do is expand cricket,” Speed says. “We know it’s a long-term project. But the only way to do this once countries have reached a certain standard is to let them play the best teams. Hopefully, the gap between the weaker Test teams and the best of the rest is not so great this time. Maybe next time it will have disappeared completely.”

The ICC has invested at least $70m in developing cricket round the world over the past decade and it desperately wants to believe the plan is working. The evidence thus far is rather slender. “I have high hopes of Kenya and Scotland,” says Speed.

Kenya reached the semi-finals of the 2003 World Cup in Africa but that was a fluke – New Zealand refused to play in Nairobi (unsafe) and England in Harare (unacceptable). Since then, Kenya’s cricket has fallen apart amid allegations of corruption that shocked even their own hardened government. Though it is now recovering under new management, their prospects of becoming the 11th Test nation have receded.

Neither does Speed’s other example, Scotland, represent expansion. The Scots have played cricket for centuries and Donald Walker, sports editor of The Scotsman newspaper, thinks interest has hardly increased. The idea of Scotland joining the elite is absurd for several reasons. Attendances at cricket matches there are paltry (“Scots who like cricket are more inclined to play than watch,” says Walker) and the interest that exists is focused on England rather than Scotland. As Scots recognise but the ICC does not, it is a historical quirk that the British national team is called England. Any really gifted Scottish cricketer will follow the money and head south. The same applies in Ireland.

Walker, not surprisingly, supports Scotland’s participation. “If we don’t have the World Cup, there is no chance of developing the game here.” And Speed points out that when Michael Holding started in the 1970s, there were only six Test teams.

This is true but potentially misleading. The white-ruled Southern African states were then excluded for political reasons. Now South Africa have been readmitted; Rhodesia (which for cricketing purposes was part of South Africa) are now in as Zimbabwe; Sri Lanka (the one undoubted success story) have been promoted; and Bangladesh are included in their own right, having been there before, as part of first India and then Pakistan.

Once again this is hardly expansion. In any case, Zimbabwe – where the cricket administration is as disgraceful as everything else – now have only a few dozen serious cricketers left. In Bangladesh, the people are cricket-crazy and the potential is boundless but the country’s seven years as a fully-fledged member of the ICC have been almost wholly embarrassing.

The main growth areas of the past two decades have had nothing to do with the ICC. Cricket has spread within South Africa, not so much to the black majority, but to the white Afrikaaners, who used to consider it an eccentricity of the rooineks – the English-speaking whites. Far more significantly, it has spread within India, from the urban bourgeoisie to the villages, who had hardly heard of the game until TV belatedly arrived. The most remarkable international success story is probably Afghanistan, where the game spread not through investment but war – thousands of kids learnt to play in refugee camps in Pakistan. When a team from Afghanistan came to England last summer, they impressed everyone with their talent.

The ICC has kept acquiring new countries, which is important to cricket’s fraught geopolitics. As well as the 10 full members, the ICC has 27 associates (from Argentina to Zambia) and 55 with the lesser status of affiliates (from Afghanistan to Vanuatu).

Yet in most of these places cricket has the shallowest roots. Since 1993, Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack has included reports from more than a hundred countries and territories. The overwhelming impression is that cricket is being spread, not by the ICC’s efforts but in pretty much the way it spread in the 19th century when British imperialists took their bats and balls to the ends of the earth. This time the driving force is the army of migrant workers emerging from the Indian subcontinent to build the 21st century. There is barely a country left on earth without some blokes playing cricket but, in the vast majority of cases, the locals’ role is to look on, baffled.

In terms of numbers, one place stands out. Cricket is now embedded across the United States, thanks almost invariably to Asian migrants. In the suburban parks of every large city, it isn’t hard to find Indians and Pakistanis playing to a reasonable standard and the local news vendor may well be up with the World Cup scores.

Indeed, this should have been the week for American cricket: the ICC fondly hoped that the Caribbean World Cup would offer a chance to play lucrative fixtures at a new stadium in Florida. But the administration of US cricket has been too catastrophic to let that happen and last Saturday the ICC suspended the USA Cricket Association for the second time. Cricket’s administrators have stopped fantasising that the US is going to repent of its 19th-century decision to prefer baseball. They still believe, more reasonably, that there is big money to be made in the Asian-American niche market.

But with that promised land temporarily out of reach, Speed and his cohorts have a new dream. China! The government is supportive, even to the extent of ordering people to play cricket. Latest figures suggest there are 995 cricketers in China, or slightly less than one person per million. As Speed says, it’s a long-term project. Very long-term, I’d say.

Matthew Engel is an FT columnist. The 144th edition of ‘Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack’ will be published on March 28 (John Wisden and Co, £40)

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