ICC will have to scramble to save World Cup

Notice McCullum's stroke? Or the sea of empty seats behind him? Photo courtesy: Bangkok Post

It may be early days yet in the ICC Cricket World Cp 2011 but the fact that the first three games can hardly be called ‘matches’ and the fact that the cricket lovers in Chennai gave the opening game in their city the thumbs down on Sunday make me wonder how soon it will be before the pundits starting asking a question that fans have already started asking: Does the Cricket World Cup in its present form have a bright future?

Let me take up the second aspect first. That there will be empty stands in some games is a reality that the World Cup organisers will have to live with.

The Organising Committee Commonwealth Games 2010 Delhi was in a similar fix and few understood that a hockey game between, say, New Zealand and Trinidad and Tobago or between Malaysia and Scotland would never draw a full house. And no one even wanted complimentary tickets for these matches.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India has already advised the hosting associations to lower ticket prices for non-India games and to offer free seating to school students to ensure that the stands are not-so-empty as they were at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chepauk, Chennai, during New Zealand’s 10-wicket demolition of Kenya.

No matter what the host associations do, it will be hard to draw the paying spectator to watch these games. The fan has become smart and saves up for the big games (read the India matches and the knockout games). There will be a blink-and-you-miss quality about the knockout games, given that there are just seven of these games between March 23 and April 2.

Besides, the fans have IPL IV looming ahead and would rather get to see contests that offer them quality. That brings me to focus on the fact that some of these World Cup games will be mismatches. The ICC will have to ensure that the intensity of the contests in the tournament is high if the product called the Cricket World Cup is to survive, if not flourish.

I have always believed that the market forces will do their best to ensure that the 50-over game is kept afloat – simply because a full game can include close to 98 minutes of commercials. Yet, the fact that a lot of cricket fans are waiting for the knockout rounds can make the same market forces rethink a bit sooner than later.

When the marketing wizards in the powerhouses that are funding the cricket carnival sit down to calculate return on investment, their focus will be drawn to the apparent lack of interest either in stadia or TV. And these market forces will influence the form and shape of the Cricket World Cup to ensure that all games hold a high level of interest for the audience.

Of course, the ICC has already realised that it cannot use the Cricket World Cup as the platform to give the minnows exposure and has decided that the next edition will have just 10 teams competing. It is important that it spends the next four years in ensuring that the standards of the sides attempting to qualify for the World Cup is lifted manifold.

If the tournament in the sub-continent does not succeed in drawing and holding the attention of the fan, ICC will have to scratch its head and reinvent the World Cup format to ensure that it survives – and flourishes.