Late last year, the calls for cricket to regain its place as an Olympic sport became increasingly loud and as vociferous as they had ever been.
True legends of the game, such as Australian leg-spinning wizard Shane Warne and batting maestro Sachin Tendulkar, were two of the most high-profile figures to speak out in favour of the sport making its Olympic return after a gap of more than century.
Those lurking behind the scenes in the cricketing corridors of power also seemed to be weighing up the idea with increased impetus - England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) chairman Giles Clarke was actively encouraging his members to get behind it.
The sentiments from Clarke, Warne and Tendulkar came before the International Cricket Council (ICC), the sport’s worldwide ruling body, held talks with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) - including its President Thomas Bach - where the possibility of cricket being added to the Games for the first time since Paris in 1900 was high on the agenda. Talks were described as “productive” by both parties, further enhancing the debate and discussion surrounding a topic which has continued to divide the cricketing fraternity.
Following, quite frankly bizarre suggestions, that beach cricket or indoor cricket could be pursued as the chosen format should the ICC push for Olympic inclusion some way down the line, the organisation’s chief executive David Richardson inherently dismissed such claims when he said they should not select a “mickey mouse” version of the sport for the Games. All roads, therefore, lead to Twenty20.
After the initial fervour and hubbub, however, the shouts faded away with little more than a whimper. From noisy to non-existent almost in an instant.
If there was ever a reason for such calls to be reignited, the ICC World Twenty20 in India has surely provided it.
Yes, there have been issues, most notably organisers opting to not put tickets on sale until the very last moment but from the ICC’s point of view, they could not have asked for better.
“The event has gone really well from an organisational and cricket standpoint,” Richardson told insidethegames.
“Despite delays in the determination of the venues and the match schedule caused by changes in the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), most of the logistical challenges have been successfully overcome and we have seen some fascinating, competitive cricket played in front of good crowds. The television ratings have been excellent and the digital following record breaking.”
Even those who may not have any particular affection for the game have been encapsulated by what we have witnessed over the best part of a month. From the six-hitting exploits of the likes of West Indian powerhouse Chris Gayle and Indian star Virat Kohli, to the close finishes and fairytale stories, it is fair to say we have been spoiled.
There have been notable moments aplenty at the sixth edition of the tournament, including Bangladesh snatching defeat from the jaws of victory during a pulsating, mesmerising spectacle of a group stage contest where they needed just two runs from the final three balls to secure what would have been a shock win over the hosts.
The performances of Afghanistan - one of the ICC’s Associate Members who do not play Test cricket, considered the ultimate format of the game - are also worthy of a mention as they have shown why the decision to cut the amount of teams at the next World Cup from 14 to 10 has sparked such outrage.
Yet it is not only the sporting action itself which may have caught the eye of the IOC. Under Bach, there exists this notion that the Olympics must cater to the younger generation, with the potential inclusion of skateboarding at Tokyo 2020 a clear example of this, and there is no doubt that a Twenty20 cricket match ticks all the right boxes in that regard.
Confetti, thunderous dance music and a general party atmosphere have accompanied the vast majority of the games at the competition in Idia and have made for an entrancing spectacle which would not look out of place at the Olympic Games. Far from it.
“The tournament in India has given a tremendous boost to the popularity and commercial appeal of the game, and made a strong case for inclusion in the Olympic Games,” Saint Lucian IOC Member and ardent cricket follower Richard Peterkin told insidethegames.
Honorary IOC Member Randhir Singh agrees. “It will be a good sport for the world to see and it would be a good Olympic sport,” he said.
“Look at the kind of sports that are being shortlisted by the IOC. I’m sure cricket can be a part of this and there is a huge market for it, with big money - it’s a win-win. The game is popular and the revenue is there. Twenty20 will be ideal and would work.”
On paper, Twenty20 cricket and the Olympic Games seem a perfect match. The competition would not be difficult to stage as matches can be done and dusted within three hours and the tournament would not cause any issues in terms of athlete numbers, largely due to the fact that only 18 nations have T20 international status. Few would disagree with the view that it would add another thrilling dimension to the grandest sporting event of them all.
Cricket at the Olympics would also allow the IOC to further tap into the lucrative Indian market. As Singh bluntly puts it, the sport is “a religion in our country”. Imagine the sheer pandemonium if his nation were to ever compete for an Olympic gold medal.
India has not only put on a scintillating tournament which will live long in the memory but have shown the way for future editions of the high-octane competition, especially with the showcasing of the women’s event alongside that of their male counterparts, something which has drawn widespread acclaim.
Women’s cricket is evolving at a rapid speed. It has emerged from the doldrums, blooming and blossoming with every passing year, and its rise to prominence has prompted both England and Australia’s sides to turn professional - a development the former team’s captain Charlotte Edwards described at the time as something she “never thought I'd see in my time as a player.”
“The women’s WT20 held together with the men’s tournament has been very successful in growing and raising the profile of the women’s game, to the point that ICC will need to consider in the next few years whether the women’s event itself justifies a stand-alone status,” said Richardson.
“The next women’s WT20 in the West Indies in 2018 is a women’s event only and we will be very interested to see how it is received.”
Giving the women the same platform as the men would also have been greeted with applause over at the IOC’s headquarters bringing a smile to the face of Bach in the process as "gender equality" have become buzzwords over in Lausanne.
But, while the World Twenty20 will be regarded as a success, and appears, on the surface at least, to have done the sport’s chances of inclusion no harm whatsoever, cricket’s Olympic ambitions remain no clearer than before the tournament started with the qualification stage on March 8.
The main obstacle is a pivotal one; do the ICC really want cricket, which garners a huge fanbase already and attracts sponsors and television coverage galore in its current state, to become a part of the Olympic Games? Would it enhance their portfolio that much?
Judging by their choice not to apply for a place on the Olympic programme for Tokyo 2020 - they were one of just seven out of 33 eligible sports to do so - their current opinion would suggest not. Actions speak far louder than any words spoken in meetings or talks, but Richardson is of the belief that, if cricket’s members were to unite, being a part of the Olympic programme is not as far away as some might think.
“We now better understand the process and the timelines for any application to be made if cricket wants to be in the Olympics for 2024,” said Richardson.
“We know how the IOC is thinking when it comes to cricket in the Olympics. For instance, we know that they recognise the potential value that cricket could bring to the games - particularly from the sub-continent - but we understand we will be competing with other sports and that the IOC has restrictions or limitations on the number of disciplines and athletes that can attend the games.
“We know that they are only interested in sports that will bring their top players and teams. They have said they are not interested in six-a-side, or beach or indoor cricket – ‘It would have to be in a format that you play in a global tournament yourselves.’ So they’ve made that clear to us. They’ve also said, ‘You need to be fully committed, all your members need to be behind it, otherwise you won’t get the support from the IOC to admit cricket.’”
Cricket would also have to wrestle with a familiar problem which has plagued many sports which have tried and failed to earn an Olympic place. It is currently dominated by a select few nations - most notably India, Australia and England, who have huge sway over the decision making and governance of the game - and has minimal exposure in major markets like the United States and China.
Just 10 countries participate at Test-playing level, with England the only European representative amid a group which includes India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan in Asia, South Africa and Zimbabwe in Africa, the West Indies in the Caribbean and Australia and New Zealand in Oceania.
Of the ICC’s 105 members, 57 are affiliates, the tier below Associates where you will find the likes of Austria, Panama and the Seychelles - hardly countries with proud cricketing histories.
Yet Afghanistan’s triumph over the West Indies, winners of the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka in 2012, proved there is talent beneath the upper echelons. It’s about harnessing and developing that – a duty which the ICC are so blatantly neglecting by reducing the amount of teams at the 50-over World Cup in four years’ time.
“The decision to revert to a 10 team World Cup was made for a number of reasons - more value and more competitive matches,” defended Richardson. “A 10-team World Cup at this time in our history, for one reason or the other, including the unavoidable fact that an event with more guaranteed Indian matches is significantly more valuable than one with less, generates significantly more money for the game than one of a different format.
“And cricket, including the Associate Members, get the benefit of that. We want our global events to be the showcases for each of the formats, and for that to happen, ideally, you want to have competitive matches all the way through.
“Having said that, the ICC’s major objective is to increase the number of competitive teams at the highest level and the best way of doing this is to provide the developing countries, like Afghanistan or Ireland and others, merit-based opportunities to compete against the top teams on a more regular year-by-year basis.”
Afghanistan provided one of the moments of the ICC World Twenty20 with a shock victory over the West Indies ©Getty Images
Afghanistan provided one of the moments of the ICC World Twenty20 with a shock victory over the West Indies ©Getty Images
Global reach is a valued commodity in the IOC but spreading the game to far-reaching parts of the world remains a barrier cricket has yet to overcome. It is an essential prerequisite for the Games.
Singh singled out his own country and the BCCI - perhaps the most powerful organisation outside of the ICC - who he firmly believes should be doing more to help with the growth of a sport he holds so dearly to his heart.
“India has become the hub for cricket and the BCCI should promote it more,” he said. “If the BCCI were more forceful, cricket would spread much more. There’s a lot of money in sponsorship in Indian cricket and the more that is spread will be better for the game.
“To get it to the Olympic Games you need a certain amount of countries playing and then only can you get it included on the programme.
"Once the technical bit is complete I am sure the IOC would look at cricket.”
A possible avenue towards greater worldwide engagement for cricket, so often one of the principle aims of any governing body, would be to pursue the possibility of the sport regaining its position on the Commonwealth Games programme - an event it has been absent from since the 1998 edition in Kuala Lumpur, where it made its one and only appearance to date.
Amid all the murmurings in late 2015 about cricket and its relationship with the Olympics, “exploratory” discussions also took place between the ICC and the Commonwealth Games Federation (CGF) about the prospect of it featuring at Durban 2022.
Glasgow 2014 thoroughly put the event as a whole on the map and giving the lesser teams the chance to participate on such a well-renowned stage could only yield positive results. Alternatively, increased presence of cricket at continental games - it has featured at the past two editions of the Asian Games - could provide the answer, according to Singh, who revealed that the BCCI had in fact blocked an attempt at adding cricket to the event at New Delhi in 2010.
Those of us familiar with that particular multi-sport competition will agree that cricket perhaps dodged a bullet by being absent from the competition six years ago, widely regarded as one of the worst to ever be held.
“I feel cricket should be a regular in the Commonwealth Games,” Singh, India’s IOC member from 2001 to 2014 before stepping into his honorary role, said. “Having cricket at the Continental Games will be a major boost for cricket and for the Games themselves.
“We took it to Malaysia for the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur and we wanted to get it at New Delhi and unfortunately the BCCI opposed us and didn’t agree with us. Cricket should definitely be at the Commonwealth Games as a regular sport.”
But again, while the ICC have seemingly taken the first step down the Commonwealth road, a prominent view among many is that the organisation is deliberately stopping themselves in their own tracks, perhaps due to a lingering fear that adding another event to an already jam-packed calendar would dilute the value of its other global competitions.
It was an issue raised by Richardson, who suggested any decision on the Commonwealth Games should come after the ICC Board has fully considered its Olympic options.
“Whilst discussions with the games’ organisers are ongoing, at this stage, the Board has determined that the Olympics issue should be determined first before making any final decision on the Commonwealth Games,” he said.
“There are some concerns, the main one being whether participation in the Olympics will devalue the ICC WT20 event. We need to investigate that as well before making a decision.”
As with any walks of life, there are always going to be critics. Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee President Brian Lewis was the most vehement of detractors towards the ICC and the way they have gone about their business, particularly in relation to cutting the amount of teams at the World Cup, but also that familiar accusation levelled at the body that they are too reliant on the powerful triumvirate of Australia, England and India.
This, however, is currently being addressed to some extent by the ICC after they agreed to limit the powers of the “Big Three” by removing their rights to a permanent seat on the 13-member Board, effectively granting the supposed lesser nations a bigger say in the body, as part of widespread and comprehensive governance reviews announced in February.
“I think the ICC is too focused on the three big markets and they aren’t genuinely keen on globalising the sport,” Lewis, who hails from the country which produced cricketing great Brian Lara, said.
“The decision to cut teams in future is extremely short sighted and reeks of self-interest rather than what's in the best interest of the sport.
“I don’t get the sense that there is genuine interest within ICC.
“Both the Olympics and Commonwealth Games will be excellent opportunities to broaden the country participation. But it seems India and other influential ICC decision makers aren't prepared to champion for T20 on the Olympic and Commonwealth Games programmes.”
Of course, such accusations are nothing new, and the ICC have dealt with much worse, such as the string of match-fixing scandals, leading to a 20-year suspension handed to former South Africa international Gulam Bodi, as well as the controversial return of convicted Pakistani spot-fixing trio Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir. Their re-emergence attracted varying levels of criticism.
The prerogative of the ICC remains to be seen, but they have been given a substantial rostrum from which to launch a bid for a coveted Olympic slot than the World Twenty20.
I cannot help but think, however, that Warne and Tendulkar’s wish may never become a reality and that the Olympic calls may disappear with the velocity of a ball being whacked into the stands for six.
There is little question many hurdles remain. The first breakthrough would be to get the ICC fully supportive of a place at the Olympic Games - something which is set to be on the agenda at a meeting later this month. From there, anything is possible.
“The Members are now exploring in more detail the potential benefits - or negatives - of participating in the Olympics,” Richardson said. “The matter will be discussed again at our April meetings. I think it is down to the willingness of the members. If all the members want to go to the Olympics then I think cricket has got a good chance of achieving it.”