Eleven teams had participated in the Women’s World Cup in India back in 1997, a year before cricket made its debut in the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur. Eight teams featured in the latest Women’s World Cup earlier this year. Across the seven Women’s T20 World Cups, the number of teams went from eight in 2009 to 10 in 2020. That number won’t change to 12 until 2026. Women or men, cricket World Cups have always had less of the ‘World’ in them.
Enter the 2022 Commonwealth Games. While this edition is a first for women cricketers and the T20 format, a men’s 50-over competition had been staged at Kuala Lumpur 1998. Birmingham, however, seems a more pivotal point in the game’s history with the International Cricket Council looking to take cricket to the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.
At the Birmingham Games, cricket walks in as the new kid around the block, all pumped up to show everyone what it’s got. For watchers of the game, the task of locating the cricketers in the opening ceremony among the large contingents of athletes would’ve been an alien feeling. The players have few of their own. India captain Harmanpreet Kaur has talked about the unique experience of getting to stay at the Games Village alongside athletes from other games ahead of the tournament opener against Australia.
“Staying in the village is a little different from the other tournaments we’ve played but we’re enjoying and adapting to these things,” Kaur said. “Everytime, wherever you go, you have to wear your card otherwise nobody is going to recognise you.”
Once they take guard, though, there is a larger responsibility at hand for all the cricketers participating. Heather Knight, who is no stranger to leading England at a major tournament at home, does understand the additional weight on shoulders at this particular time.
“It is a chance for us as a sport to reach some people we haven’t reached before,” Knight had said in a recent chat with Sky Sports.
“A huge stage to show what we can do. The platform to reach so many people is there, so our job is to be successful and show the skills that we have.”
While cricket looks to travel to new regions and introduce itself to a new audience, there is bona fide proof of its world map being significantly bigger than the ICC has portrayed through its world events.
FairBreak Invitational has shown way forward
After leading England to the 2022 World Cup Final, Knight was among the 90 players who participated in the FairBreak Invitational, a six-team tournament featuring players from almost three dozen countries, the majority of them being ICC Associate Member nations. Considering participation demographic alone would be patronizing a tournament that displayed how well players from these Associate countries could gel with the very best in the business – from the 22-year old Dutch opener Sterre Kalis featuring in seven fifty-plus partnerships alongside veterans such as New Zealand’s Sophie Devine and West Indies’ Stafanie Taylor, to 40-year old Japanese left-arm spinner Shizuka Miyaji picking up six wickets from just seven overs.
Germany all-rounder Tina Gough perhaps summed up the situation best for most of the Associate nation players participating in the franchise T20 tournament.
“It’s still a small sport in Germany. Obviously football there is so huge that it’s hard for cricket to compete but we’re definitely growing. The number of clubs is growing every year. So to have a spotlight on us like at this tournament is amazing,” Gough said.
For a game that has and still very much presents itself as an international-contest driven product, a page out of the FairBreak book of diversity needs to be stolen, without shame at once. And it needs to be used at major tournaments.
Reservations around the quality of the contest are likely to come into the fray whenever the idea of more teams at major tournaments is proposed. T20, with its more favorable odds for the underdogs, is the perfect format for expansion. The Commonwealth Games and the Olympics seem the perfect testing grounds for it before increasing the team slots for the World Cups and their qualifiers.
For the first time in the 21st century, cricket has got the tag of a new sport, at these multi-sport events. It has the luxury of taking measures unburdened by a past, albeit in the bubble of these multi-sport events. Maybe, just maybe, they can help it add the ‘World’ in its World Cups.