The news caught our attention this month as almost everything to do with cricket does these days, by way of a controversy. And I’d like to think that Mike Brearley, the former England captain hailed for his strategic planning, had it all worked out precisely so. It went like this. The MCC’s World Cricket Committee, its think-tank, asked the International Cricket Council (ICC) to make a pitch for Twenty20 to be included in the 2024 Olympics, a process that would need cricket to begin lobbying rightaway. Brearley held the interest of the media by aiming a sarcastic jibe at Giles Clarke, a former England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) official, thereafter doing the honourable thing by apologising, but not before the idea of cricket at the Olympics had been presented yet again.
How the ECB may take this wise counsel and do its bit to get the ICC to accept the idea is yet to be seen, but it is worth noting that Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly are currently on the MCC World Cricket Committee. They are the very two former players who will be key in assisting Indian cricket out of its current mess. Could it be that they’ll step up to it and lobby for a chance to take cricket to the Olympics?
To be sure, even if the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), and by extension the ICC, were game, cricket would still have a tough time making a case for itself at the Olympics. The Games are struggling to deal with what their most devoted chronicler, David Wallechinsky, calls ‘gigantism’: the presence of too many athletes for an organising committee to handle. One way to address the problem has been to cap the number to 15,000 athletes. So, for cricket to return to the Games after what was reportedly a lacklustre final in Paris in 1900, there would have to be an irresistible campaign to outweigh reservations about the lopsided athletes-to-medals ratio. Perhaps it won’t be difficult, because the Olympics’ new emphasis on the popularity of medal events can easily be met by cricket, as too its geographical spread.
The last may actually lead to a rethink even by some advocates on the MCC think-tank. To know why, you need only recall a TV interview in which N Srinivasan said that the Chinese had let it be known that if cricket were to be made an Olympic sport, they’d take up its development in China seriously, and not otherwise. For all their advocacy of taking the game to new territories, cricket’s great powers are extremely reluctant to bring in new folks to its greatest contests, for reasons of pride and profit. Watch how they postpone the inevitable expansion of the next World Cup from the proposed ten teams to include the rising associates. See how the Big Three plan was floated to protect India, Australia and England from relegation in any performance-based league system.
Even when the chance has come to offer cricket’s services in India’s hunt for respectable medals at multi-sport tournaments, the BCCI has failed to step up to it. As it did last year at the Asian Games, refusing to get on board, presumably to resist scrutiny by an external organisation or share the spoils of broadcast rights that a men’s team promises, in the process denying Indian women the chance to compete on a stage greater than what other women cricketers from the Subcontinent got.
Cricket may or may not make the cut as an Olympic sport, but making the case for itself as a potential medal event could pull it out of the mess it is currently in. It is a game in deep confusion about which format matters the most—the five-day Test that’s freighted with history and context, the one- day international that provides its most meaningful world championship (the World Cup), or the Twenty20 that fills up the stadium, promises to bring new countries and leagues in the fray and gives it enough portability to cross over to multi-sport tournaments.
Cricket is also, as even the most sports-agnostic consumer of news must have noticed these past weeks, in desperate need of best practices. The process of making a case for itself as an Olympic sport, whether ultimately successful or not, would give it a chance to work out what makes it a sport in the first place, and what obligations it must heed—to its players, to spectators, to the domestic game, to gender equality and to a new code for expansion updated from its outdated colonial map.