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Why is cricket so reluctant to embrace meritocracy?

Tim Wigmore in Cricinfo


They are still called the golden team. In 1953, Hungary came to Wembley and eviscerated England 6-3 in the "Match of the Century". A year later, in the 1954 World Cup, Hungary defeated West Germany 8-3 and Brazil 4-2. In a run of 50 games, until the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, they won 42 and lost only one - to West Germany in the 1954 World Cup final.

Yet Euro 2016 was Hungary's first appearance in a major tournament for 30 years. While Hungary's decline is sad, it has been no impediment to football's growth. The most successful sport in the world allows teams to rise and, yes, fall based on merit. So do other sports that are expanding, like basketball, rugby and even baseball.

Cricket, though, takes a very different view. This is the context of the opposition to two divisions: the sport has never been run on merit. The very concept of full membership reflects a sport that has prioritised status above on-field results. That can be seen in how each of the ten Test nations retains permanent votes in the ICC board (while the three votes shared by the 95 Associates and Affiliates are effectively worthless), and how even after recent steps to increase funding for top Associates, Zimbabwe still receive about three times as much ICC revenue as Afghanistan and Ireland.

In all previous World Cups, all Full Members have received automatic qualification as a membership privilege. That will change in 2019, but only while the tournament is contracted to ten teams. And even now cricket refuses to embrace the concept of World Cup qualification being based on a fair and equal process, as has long been the norm in other major sports. Afghanistan and Ireland have a chance to qualify automatically through the ODI rankings table, but this is only a theoretical chance: Afghanistan haven't played a single ODI against a top-nine team since the last World Cup.

The idea of Test status has historically been the most egregious illustration of cricket's contempt for meritocracy. The acquisition and retention of status has always been based on politicking as much as cricket: when Pakistan gained independence, the country had to wait five years to gain full membership. Sri Lanka could have been elevated to Test status years before 1982. And when Bangladesh finally gained Test status in 2000 - their own attempts to win Test status upon independence, 29 years earlier, had failed - they had lost five of the six ODIs they had played against Kenya, whose own application was rejected, in the three years leading up to then. When a member of the Kenyan board later made this point to an ICC official, the response was instructive: "You do not have 100 million people."

So when Sri Lanka Cricket's president Thilanga Sumathipala said, "If someone wants to come up - they can come up, that's no problem", he should really know better. Even the much-vaunted Test Challenge demands that a new team win their first ever series, something no country has ever done, and makes no mention of making the 11th Test side a Full Member too. When opponents of two divisions in Tests speak of how "the smaller countries will lose out" if divisions are introduced, it is clear they are thinking only of Full Members, and not the 95 Associates and Affiliates.
The very administrators charged with maintaining fair play on the pitch - by being vigilant against match-fixing and ball-tampering - often seem determined to avoid it off the field, by preventing emerging countries getting a fair opportunity to rise.

This aversion to merit belittles cricket. It has acted as a roadblock to new teams emerging: Ben Amafrio, executive general manager at Cricket Australia, said recently that cricket has only gained one competitive new team - Sri Lanka - in the last 40 years. In growing the sport, cricket has been dwarfed not merely by football but baseball, basketball and rugby too. This means that many wondrous talents, from Steve Tikolo to Mohammad Shahzad and Hamid Hassan, have rarely had the chance to show the best of themselves. Worse, it has meant that countless other talents have been lost to mainstream international cricket before they have ever had the chance. Names like Muralitharan, Jayasuriya, Aravinda de Silva and Sangakkara would not resonate in the same way had they been unfortunate enough to play in the pre-1982 generation of Sri Lankan cricket, when they could do nothing to gain Test status.

Rejecting meritocracy also damages the standard of cricket - not just because of the talent that does not get to play with the elite but because it allows existing Full Members to get away with an underperforming team without real consequence. This was the point made by New Zealand Cricket chief executive David White recently, when he said that two divisions would "make people look at their high-performance programmes and their systems, so the product of Test cricket will improve as well". It is a lesson that other sports long ago learned.

Meritocracy does not tolerate the stasis and misgovernance that has characterised boards in Sri Lanka, West Indies, Zimbabwe and beyond for far too long. Former Zimbabwe coach Dav Whatmore recently pointed out that ZC are "getting US$ 8-9 million a year and they've got a debt of almost $20m".

Such ICC funding would have gone much further had it been allocated to countries on the basis of merit, not status. And not only have Full Members received far more ICC money, they have also been free of scrutiny in how they spend it. The ICC has long mandated that all Associates and Affiliates submit their financial statements every year, to show where every cent of their ICC funding is going, yet only this year ensured that Full Members do the same.

Where competition has been genuinely embraced, it has led to huge improvements in the quality of the game. That much was recognised by Tim Anderson, the ICC's former head of global development, who said that at Associate and women's level, "the long-standing, merit-based event structures… have all provided building blocks for these improved performances, as has a funding model designed to incentivise and reward performance, not status", in an email to ICC members earlier this year. The contrast with the Full Members' attitude to meritocracy at the top of the men's game did not need to be spelled out.

Like the Hungarian football team and the West Indies cricket team, international teams decline. But while football and other sports allow other rising teams to take their place - and fallen giants to rise again - cricket does not. As sad as the decline of West Indies is, is it any sadder than the best players from Afghanistan, say, being denied the opportunity to play Test cricket because of the misfortune of their nationality?

Across all sports, fans and broadcasters value meritocracy, which gives games context and consequences for victory and defeat. It is this knowledge - and the reality of stagnating TV rights for all bilateral cricket, while those for domestic T20 leagues are soaring - that is now driving the ICC's attempts to introduce two divisions, and a 13-team ODI league. Without embracing the principles of merit, "cricket will lose fans and revenues, threatening its position in the marketplace," warns Simon Chadwick, a sports business expert.

So ingrained is cricket's conservatism that the notion of meritocracy in international cricket is now seen as something radical. In essence, though, it is an insurance policy to safeguard international cricket's future: both its number of competitive teams and its financial viability. Japan's victories over New Zealand and France in the Olympic rugby sevens were the latest reminder of how other sports are aggressively expanding, and in the process weaning themselves off a dangerous over-dependence upon a few countries. Yet cricket essentially retains its traditional colonial footprint, and its economics are still unhealthily reliant upon a coterie of nations - and above all India.

This means that if international cricket becomes even a little less lucrative in Australia, England and India - even if only through the rising appeal of domestic T20 leagues - the entire economy of the international game will suffer. Never mind the cricketing arguments for meritocracy; on a business level, that is poor risk management. The risk to international cricket's future lies not in meritocracy but in rejecting it.

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