India arrives late to World Cup party, courtesy the Godfather of cricket

It is six days since the 12th edition of the ICC Cricket World Cup began in England. Most teams have already played two matches. Yet, India is completely absent from the points table. The largest cricketing nation in the world will be making a rather late entrance in only the eight fixture of the tournament, on June 5 against South Africa. According to recent reports, India was supposed to play its first fixture on June 2 against Bangladesh, but this was changed to better suit India’s schedule.

Mathematically speaking, the odds of a team playing its first fixture in only the eight match of a tournament are staggeringly low at less than 5%. The odds are based on the probability of a team playing its first match in only the eight fixture of a 10-team tournament. The exact number is 4.36%, and is calculated taking into consideration two constraints: that all teams play opponents only once, and no team plays back-to-back matches.

This scenario is juxtaposed perfectly with South Africa, which will be playing its third match of the tournament on Wednesday, when India plays its first.

It just so happens that India’s first match is on a holiday, Ramzan Id (Eid-ul-Fitar). And five of India’s subsequent eight matches will be played over the remaining weekends of the World Cup. Why is this the case? Aren’t fixtures of major global sporting events chosen randomly, through mathematical scheduling algorithms? Is this just the result of random lots offered by the ICC, or is something else afoot?

The Godfather

The fact that India plays six of its nine matches on holidays is not just a matter of coincidence, it is because the BCCI demands it. As the richest cricketing body in the world, pulling in the lion’s share of the sport’s global viewership, the BCCI is often seen throwing its weight around, and this edition of the World Cup is no exception. A quick glance of the World Cup fixtures shows how the scheduling is dependent entirely on boosting viewership for India:

  • India plays six of its nine league matches on holidays or weekends. This is an overwhelming number. All of India’s big-ticket matches, against Pakistan, Australia, England and South Africa, are on holidays or weekends.
  • This leaves less space for other countries to play on the weekends. Ironically, even England, the hosts, somehow end up playing only two matches on weekends, one of which is against India.
  • India will not play a single day-night match this World Cup—presumably, so as not to inconvenience millions of Indians who would have to watch these matches till 2 am IST.

This is obviously not the first time the BCCI has flexed its muscles, and it will certainly not be the last. Most recently, at the Asia Cup in 2018, the BCCI made sure that the Indian cricket team played all of its fixtures in Dubai (regardless of India’s position at the end of the group stage), while every other team scuttled between Dubai and Abu Dhabi from one day to the other.

The BCCI’s heavy-handed behaviour is unwelcome, but this is the reality of cricket in India today, where money and politics, rather than professionals, steer cricket administration in a direction that maximises profit and influence. Money is the key driver: after all, India now receives nearly one-fourth of the ICC’s total revenue distribution. This amounts to a total of $405 million for the BCCI during the 2016-2023 cycle, more than the next three largest countries combined, including the cricket boards of England ($139 million), Australia ($128 million) and South Africa ($128 million).

In a practical sense, it is worth analysing what the BCCI’s overhanded behaviour means for Indian cricket, and how it impacts the future of the sport in India and abroad.

What happens to cricket?

For the future of cricket as a global sport, perhaps nothing has as much of an impact as the ICC’s decision, nudged by the BCCI and other cricketing boards, to reduce the number of nations playing the World Cup. The number of teams in the World Cup had been steadily rising since the inaugural edition, from eight in 1975 to 12 in 1996, and eventually peaking at 16 teams in 2007. Since then, it has reduced to 14 in 2011 and 2015, and to 10 in this edition. This does not bode well for the future of cricket as a global sport. Sikandar Raza, the Zimbabwean all-rounder adjudged man-of-the-series for the Cricket World Cup qualifying tournament in 2018, expressed his dissatisfaction noting that, “When I started playing cricket, I thought it was to unite countries, players of different background coming together to play this beautiful sport. Unfortunately, you’ll see that’s not going to happen in next year’s World Cup. It’s certainly quite a tough pill to swallow.”

Ideally, if the ICC aspires for cricket to become a more global sport, it should open up the space for its associate member countries in major tournaments like the World Cup and the ICC Champions Trophy. This would not only increase viewership from those countries, but also create a more competitive global sporting environment. 

Despite all the heavy-handed behaviour by the BCCI, it is a relief that the Indian cricket team manages to look beyond cricket administration and focus on the game. This is why Indian cricket fans will always show up in large numbers, for their love of cricket and the players that represent the country.

India, India

Team India has arrived in good form, and remains hot favourites behind hosts England to win the World Cup. Whether or not India manages to win will depend primarily on three things. First and foremost, how well the team is able to adapt to English conditions. Given that India will play nine league matches, it would perhaps be best to take their time to get suited to the conditions, even if it means they get off to a rocky start, but end up peaking towards the latter half of the tournament.

The second factor will be the ability of India’s top and middle order batsmen to conserve their wickets in the first 15 overs of each match. Most pitches in England offer enough advantage for the batsmen if you are able to stick around. India thus needs to avoid a battling collapse, something that other teams like Pakistan have already seen this tournament.

The deciding factor will be the ability of India’s wrist spinners to take wickets in the middle overs. Already, this World Cup has seen some impressive middle-overs partnerships, such as Shakib Al Hasan and Mushfiqur Rahim’s phenomenal 142-run stand against South Africa that catapulted Bangladesh to their highest-ever ODI score of 330. Whether India’s wrist-spin duo, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, are able to break such potential partnerships in the middle overs will determine whether India can cross the line and secure yet another World Cup win—their second in England.

Hari Seshasayee is part-time cricket enthusiast, and a full-time Latin Americanist.

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