Cricket and the Olympics

The Olympics are underway and my thoughts naturally start to wander towards cricket and The Olympics. A quick look back into the CricketEurope archives shows that I first wrote about this topic for CricketEurope back in 2007, and it seems that it's come up at least once a year since then. It's been quite a long running saga.

The basic summary is this - associates want cricket in the Olympics. It opens up avenues for more government funding in several of them that in some cases could be tenfold (or more) what they get from the ICC. This could lead to improved facilities, professionalisation (for both men and women) and a higher profile of disability cricket. The exposure of cricket being on a major sports broadcast is also a potential benefit.

Full members are often less keen. They cite the crowded international calendar, with the ECB laughably claiming at one point that a two-week Olympic tournament during the English season would lead to the cancellation of an entire five Test series. The BCCI have raised concerns over WADA's drug testing policies, and the West Indies would have to compete separately.

Those concerns have largely evaporated in the last couple of years, and the BCCI has now given its backing to an Indian team taking part in any 2028 Olympic cricket tournament in Los Angeles - although Olympic observers feel that 2032 in Brisbane is more likely for a cricket tournament.

There's been occasional suggestions of having beach cricket, indoor cricket or sixes in the Olympics, but all fall down due to one pertinent point - the IOC are only interested in cricket if it's the best teams playing an established format, preferably T20, as they feel this is their way to get further penetration into the Indian TV market.

One of the reasons baseball was taken off the list of regular sports - though it is back as an additional event for the current Olympics - is because Major League Baseball did not shut down its season or release players to take part, leading to most participants fielding far from full strength teams. Cricket doing the same would not be received well. Proposals for an Under-23 tournament along the lines of football at the Olympics would be met with short shrift for similar reasons.

Recently, it's become fashionable to suggest T10 as the "ideal format for the Olympics". Eoin Morgan had been paid to say this in promotion for the Abu Dhabi T10 league so often that it's almost become accepted fact. Firstly, it's a non-starter for much the same reasons that Indoor Cricket, Beach cricket, etc, would be rejected. It's not an established format (there's only one professional league) and is not played internationally beyond the scheduled European Championship that the top teams in Europe are either ignoring or not sending a full team to.

People point to the shorter duration allowing there to be a bigger Olympic tournament with more teams to be fit in the two week (and a bit given that some team sports start before the Opening Ceremony) window. There's just one problem with that claim - it doesn't.

The variable of concern for the IOC is not the duration of the tournament, but the number of athletes participating. They have been trying to keep the number of participants down for a long time now and more teams equals more participants. The ongoing baseball/softball tournament perhaps give us a guideline here. They feature six teams in each event with a total of 234 participants.

This would give us enough room for 16 fourteen player (maybe 15 with a bit of leeway) squads, enough for an eight team event for both men and women. This applies whether it's T20 or T10 in the unlikely event the IOC would agree to a T10 tournament.

The other problem with T10 is that in some countries that would be providing government funding, such funding would be linked to the format in the Olympics. The increased funding for Rugby Sevens caused by its inclusion in the games has not had much of an impact on 15s. Funding for T10 may have more of an impact on T20, but in some cases governments may even question why the teams are even playing T20 or one-day cricket when T10 is what they're being funded for. It could even have a negative impact, never mind the wider point of associates being put into smaller and smaller boxes.

So, yes Olympic cricket would be great for associate cricket. But please stop this nonsense about T10. It's not the ideal format, it won't lead to more teams being involved, could have a negative impact on the longer forms and would be rejected anyway. T10 has it's place. It's not in the Olympics.

The Hundred

It's been the big news in cricket recently, and I'm taking the fact that most games have involved at least one associate player as justification for talking about it in a column covering associate cricket. I watched the first two games in full, and bits of the other games.

And, it's cricket. Different presentation, but still cricket. And cricket is good. The format predictably wasn't all that different from T20 cricket. The commentators, no doubt acting on auto-pilot, still call each set (nobody seems to know what to call them) of five balls an over. A BBC headline yesterday referred to a "last over finish".

Speaking of the commentary, there was a notable difference between commentators on the BBC and Sky. Sky weren't presenting it as any different from their usual T20 coverage, with only David Lloyd, who somehow manages to be both an actual Lancastrian and a parody of a Lancastrian at the same time, thankfully missing. The BBC coverage was trying a little too hard to be hip and trendy. When the commentary is led by the white male middle aged duo of Michael Vaughan and Phil Tufnell it isn't a good look. What is cool may have changed over the years, but older men trying to be cool definitely remains decidedly uncool.

The simplification is only really skin deep - talk on commentary of a "modified DLS algorithm" doesn't exactly scream simplification. The on-field product isn't really any different.

And perhaps therein lies the problem. The crowds - at the men's matches at least - weren't that different from the crowds for the T20 Blast. Whilst cameras were trying to focus on the "mums and kids" that were apparently amongst the target market, the sound of the crowd was unmistakably male and boozy. The aim was to attract a new audience, and there hasn't been all that much evidence of a major change in the audience. One new viewer was my Dad who phoned me to talk about cricket for the first time ever the other evening. He's enjoying it, though a 68 year old probably isn't the new audience they were looking for.

TV viewers are healthy, with the women's competition attracting the best TV viewing figures ever in the UK for women's cricket. This is no doubt due to the amount of coverage the BBC have been giving it has helped there - the BBC hasn't given this much attention to cricket since the 1990s.

Some of the coverage has at times verged on propaganda. Kevin Pietersen's claim on Sky commentary that "only franchise cricket can bring this sort of atmosphere" was a particular offender here - as already mentioned, it was much the same atmosphere as the T20 Blast.

So it's good cricket, it's fun, and it's been an enjoyable watch. But if it isn't getting the new audience that it was hoped to get, what has been the point? Could the same results have been got by putting the T20 Blast and Kia Super League on a mix of FTA and pay TV with a tournament window and not having games being played at the same time and a bigger marketing budget?

Perhaps it's too early to make a judgement either way. Cricket is often far too quick to judge things on the first or most recent look. I'm enjoying it so far, but I'm not quite a convert yet.

Sandeep Lamichhane missing out again

Speaking of The Hundred, one of the players who I was most looking forward to watching it was the talented Nepali leg-spinner Sandeep Lamichhane. Undoubtedly one of the best leg-spinners in the shorter forms, he was set to play for the Oval Invincibles in the tournament after overcoming the visa delays that cancelled his Worcestershire deal.

However, eight days into his ten-day hotel quarantine period, he received the news that his visa wasn't valid and he had to return home. He will no longer be playing in the tournament.

Whether it's the ECB or the UK government at fault here isn't clear - let's face it there's plenty of reasons to have a go at both - the simple fact here is that a talented young cricketer has been denied a chance to ply his trade on a major platform - and get a decent pay cheque for doing so - and cricket fans in England and Wales have been denied the chance to watch him. Nobody is the winner in this situation.