One Final World Cup Before Cricket Makes the Inevitable Pivot

Competing for space and attention against the far more constantly engaging and instantly gratifying T20s, the 50-over game has long been facing a crisis of identity.

Earlier this year, the Indian men’s cricket team was scheduled to play three bilateral one-day international series against Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Australia between January and March. Each was a short, three-game series with quick turnaround time and devoid of any significant context. Lacking in context has been a long-term problem for ODI cricket outside multi-nation tournaments but that hasn’t necessarily translated to an alarming drop in interest levels. The cricket loving public in India is more than happy to be invested in a bilateral contest that won’t particularly be written about as an event of any great importance.

The promotional material used for these three series by Indian cricket’s then broadcast partner Star Sports was quite telling, though. It featured some of the biggest names in Indian cricket but instead of exclusively leveraging their popularity, the ads served as a reminder of the role ODI cricket has specifically played in shaping their legacies – the statistical scale of Sachin Tendulkar’s batting records, Rohit Sharma’s unforgettable double hundreds, or Virat Kohli’s astounding exploits while chasing totals.

The ads took no subtle measures in reminding fans that it is the nature and design of ODI cricket that allowed for some of their greatest living memories to be formed. It was as close as the broadcasters could’ve come to admitting the ODI format itself has considerably slipped out of people’s cricket watching habits. And it’s obviously all the more concerning in a World Cup year as the quadrennial occasion still continues to be the biggest flagship event this sport has to offer.

Resetting the fans’ viewing preferences therefore was absolutely paramount and it further showed when the ICC themselves ensured their campaign for the World Cup too repeatedly headlined the word ‘one-day’. “It takes one day,” a certain Shah Rukh Khan kept saying through the elaborate promo that was as cogent a giveaway as any that the format itself requires to be hard sold now before any specific series or tournament.

Competing for space and attention against the far more constantly engaging and instantly gratifying T20s, the 50-over game has long been facing a crisis of identity. While the Tests still serve the optics of elitist traditionalism against the marauding market forces, there’s little incentive in championing a format that’s now uncontestably cricket’s unwanted inbetweener.

None of it happened overnight, though. The narrative against ODI cricket has very steadily and smartly been allowed to build. From former icons like Ravi Shastri and Wasim Akram to influential voices in cricket media like Mark Nicholas, everyone capable of reshaping public opinion has long concern-trolled over the future of ODIs. The concern, it’s plainly obvious, is but a cover for nudging the consumer toward accepting the primacy of the T20 league model where everyone’s monetary interests are better served.

In terms of selling digital and satellite broadcast rights or attracting commercial sponsorships, the dominance of the Indian Premier League today is unrivalled. It is hands down the foremost property in cricket and on potential competes with the biggest brands in European and American sporting markets. It has encouraged the Indian capital to spill over and invest in leagues in other countries. It’s hoped that it will eventually create a monopolistic ecosystem where the cricket calendar is primarily occupied by these leagues and the international game (effectively the other two formats) struggles to find room to host matches.

The administrators and big capital, though, are not the only beneficiaries of cricket making a decisive pivot toward T20 leagues. It also generates significantly greater earning potential for parallel economies feeding off cricket – more coaching and consulting gigs for former players, professional partnerships for firms in the business of data analytics, higher engagement numbers for social media influencers, and a much larger platform for consumer brands to push their new products.

Basically every element that drew excessive amounts of money once every four years for what was perceived to be the ultimate celebration of cricket is now available to the markets every year for a two-month long window. The uniqueness and excitability of a World Cup has naturally taken a hit in the process and the International Cricket Council (ICC) has lived up to its reputation as an imprudent organisation at handling this.

Somewhere in late 2018, the governing body of cricket came up with the idea to rename its very successful T20 property from WorldT20 to T20 World Cup. The rechristening, it was told, was done with the idea to use T20s as a vehicle to further globalise the game. No one knows what globalising cricket truly entails but the move effectively compromised the sanctity of what a World Cup stood for.

From the singular standout event that everyone remained in anticipation of, it now became another throwaway ICC event that’s scheduled every year. Every serious media organisation started adding ‘ODI’ or ‘50-over’ as qualifiers now to identify the World Cup to separate it from a T20 World Cup. Far from being the biggest showdown tournament, it wasn’t even The World Cup anymore.

Think of the eight-year-olds only just warming up to cricket in 2023. How exactly are they supposed to fathom the scale of the World Cup when there was one held only last year and there’ll be another in a matter of a few more months?

The name ‘World Cup’ has a certain universality to it. Across sports, it’s widely accepted to be the biggest event on offer and starting to loosely call tournaments in a condensed format that are held every other year World Cups is a serious disservice to the name and the sentiment it’s meant to evoke.

Though foresight is not exactly the ICC’s strongest suit, it’s hard to be completely dismissive of the suspicion that it’s perhaps done by design with the intention to steadily phase ODIs out of the sport. In fact, one of the more bizarre suggestions lately has been to stop playing ODIs outside World Cups.

This simply assumes players will on their own adjust to the rhythm of 50-over cricket every four years while completely severing ties with it for the rest of the time. There’s another implication here that ODIs can simply be approached as an extended version of T20s and aren’t necessarily a format with its own mechanics and specificities.

And yet, such absurd recommendations find a platform from respectable publications and are regularly amplified; to the point that the consensus over the snubbing of an entire format is all but reached. There is already a demand for enhancing the length of an IPL season and with the Indian capital funding as many as four other feeder leagues in various parts of the world, the other formats are going to find fewer and fewer takers.

There’s this rather oversimplistic argument of the markets ultimately serving what the consumer wants to see on their TV sets and smartphones. The demand-supply dynamics in reality, though, are about cutting down on the consumer’s choices and artificially creating a sense of demand for something over the other.

There’s been a sustained and concerted effort at changing the viewing habits of the cricket-loving public. The ODIs have been allowed to be perceived as an inconsequential afterthought by sporadic scheduling, with the best players often skipping games while over-enthusiastic commentators relentlessly tell viewers that they do not like watching this format anymore and that it must make more room for franchise leagues. The consumer, at the end of the day, is a prisoner of his need to have some form of entertainment on his screen and will eventually settle for what’s dished out.

One deterrent to actualise this paradigm shift however, is the fact the population that advertisers mean to serve through cricket in large part consists of millennials. Having grown up in the 1990s, they continue to have some nostalgic fondness for World Cups.

The process to wipe out a whole format, therefore, hasn’t been as rapid as many would’ve liked and this World Cup will go a long way in determining how soon that final pivot takes place. It’s not like there won’t be another World Cup after this one – two more have already been announced.

But if it fails to create the desired impact over the next month and a half, it’s highly likely that the next two will be played only because they absolutely have to be. Cricket shall transform into a completely unrecognisable version of itself where primacy squarely lies with T20 leagues around the year and once in a while Australia, England and India play an odd Test series between them.

It’s impossible to be able to pointedly tell the time in the future when this shift will take place, but it looks increasingly certain that when it does, few will care. But it’s vital this piece of cricket history be written accurately. The people never demanded for the one-day cricket to be snubbed. It was a self-serving coterie of administrators, broadcasters, and big capital that found a way to mint more money with less amount of cricket per game. And while doing that, they simply pretended to be speaking on behalf of the people.