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ICC’s ‘Big Three’ idea will stagnate cricket, says History

Cricket has always been ruled by the 'Big Three', but the order has been ever-changing, and the thirst for power never so robust © Getty Images
Cricket has always been ruled by the ‘Big Three’, but the order has been ever-changing, and the thirst for power never so robust © Getty Images

By Adrian Meredith

International Cricket Council (ICC)’s recent proposal says that three national boards control 75% of all cricketing decisions from now until the end of time. The remaining 25% will be determined by other test nations on a rotating basis. In addition to this, they are suggesting having two tiers at Test level, with the top six only obligated to play against each other, and the current bottom four being joined by two other teams, presumably Ireland and Afghanistan. But, no matter how badly they do in the future, Australia, England and India will always be ranked in the top tier; they are guaranteed to remain in the top six no matter what might happen in the future.

Is this reasonable?

The 3 teams that have been chosen are:

- England, who had ‘invented’ cricket; had certainly created the first regularly staged competition [County Cricket] and spread cricket to the rest of the world primarily through countries that they had conquered; and are still the caretakers of the game through Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) — the body that still determines the rules of the game. Until recently, the ICC headquarters were in England.

- Australia, the first team to beat an all-England team; the second ever team to play Test cricket; and who, over history combined, are the most successful team in Tests and in ODIs.

- India, who currently produce 80% of all global cricketing earnings.

Currently, these three seem to be sensible choices to be the Big Three. While India control a lot of cricket’s wealth, historically England have the credibility, and when it comes to performance, Australia is undoubtedly the top contender. For three entirely different reasons (wealth, history and performance) these three are the right picks.

We could certainly not pick a team for the troika — except perhaps South Africa, the third team to have played Test cricket and currently the best of the crop, who are a bit unlucky to miss out on being one of the Big Three.

South Africa have had a better overall performance to India throughout the history of the sport. Indeed, West Indies are a bit unlucky too, as no country has ever been more dominant than they were through the 1970s and 1980s, not to mention that it was they who had helped to split the racial divide and make cricket a game for people of all colours, not just for whites.

Indeed, Pakistan would be a bit annoyed at this too, as cricket is just as popular in Pakistan, and internationally throughout history they have been more successful than India: they have, at least, done way better than their glamorous neighbours outside their country.

The issue this columnist has is that this Big Three is a permanent thing: this is not a temporary arrangement that would last for some time. This is going to last forever.

If one looks through history, the Big Three has changed, and it will probably change in the future too.

In 1850, before Test cricket began in Australia, the Big Three did not include Australia, let alone India. The Big Three used to be England, USA and Canada (yes, you have read the last two names correctly).

Back then, baseball was yet to really hit it off and USA loved playing cricket. They were quite good at it too. USA versus Canada matches were not only the first internationals between full countries, but before that they went to each country as one club against another, and did this on a fairly regular basis. Cricket in USA and Canada in the 1850s was way more popular than it is today.

Then Australia came along, and till the 1940s the Big Three would have included Australia, but India were nowhere to be seen. Australia, England and South Africa were the only 3 test teams, and there is no doubt that they were the big 3.

After the Second World War, England sunk a fair bit, and cricket’s popularity in England was on the wane. Meanwhile, it was rising rapidly in the West Indies with more and more non-white cricketers being picked. South Africa were getting better, and Australia held their fortress.

The Big Three of the 1960s would probably have been West Indies, Australia and South Africa, though there would still have been an argument to include England at the expense of one of South Africa and West Indies.

By 1980, West Indies were absolutely dominant, and, with South Africa expelled through apartheid, you wouldn’t have included them in the mix. England were somewhat irrelevant though Ian Botham made them look half decent. Pakistan suddenly became the other team to beat. If you had a Big Three then, you would have had West Indies, Australia [even without Kerry Packer’s intervention] and Pakistan.

In the 1990s, India started to get interested in Tests for the first time, having spent the previously ten years obsessed with ODI cricket. They were earning huge money from ODIs but Tests had lost their popularity. Australia had just started to regain their power, while West Indies were still huge and South Africa were returning and were suddenly awesome. If you had a Big Three, it would have been West Indies, Australia and South Africa.

In 2000, India started to get good at test cricket, and you could say that, financially at least, they were dominant. West Indies were quickly falling by the wayside, but South Africa were still huge. And England were getting good too. The big 3 would have been England, Australia and South Africa.

In 2010, India really became huge, and finally, for the first time, became one of the Big Three. Financially they are now providing 80% of the money, with the Indian Premier League (IPL) at least doubling the already huge amount of money that they were providing. In terms of rankings, Australia dropped out of it and it was now South Africa and England that split it with them. The big three suddenly shifted to the trio of England, South Africa and India.

If you look through history, India have only been one of the Big Three in the past 10 or 15 years or so. Sure, they are now, but right now Australia may be (especially after the recent Ashes), but so can be England. South Africa currently is.

The only reason to have India as one of the Big Three is because they are currently producing all of this money. But will this continue?

What if India got bad at cricket again, like they were in the 1960s? Would its popularity wane? Can we guarantee that all of India would support cricket like they do now, if they are supporting an awful team? Would they still provide 80% of the money? What if the IPL falls apart? What if some other country comes up with a better competition?

England used to love cricket, but nowadays they prefer football. Cricket is not the country’s favourite sport. Australia still has cricket as the favourite sport, but not by much — various forms of football are individually not far behind: if you combine them then they are twice as popular as cricket. No part of Australia prefers cricket — it is just that each part prefers a different type of football.

And neither England nor Australia is currently the best in the world. South Africa is.

The problem with this Big Three is that it might not be permanent.

What if China fulfils their promise and comes good?

Right now China are ranked roughly 70th and they haven’t improved lately either. There are eight divisions of the World Cricket League and the Chinese are not in in any of them. China are ranked 20th in Asia, behind the likes of Thailand and ahead of countries like Myanmar. They are really not very good.

On the other side, Afghanistan were not ranked in the top 50 in 2001, but things changed thanks to the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan by US-led United Nations forces: they played a game of cricket as part of the invasion, pitting the British armed forces against some local Afghans who had supported their invasion, and they found that cricket was a way to escape all that was going on in the country.

By 2008, Afghanistan was in the top 30 in the world, and they shocked everyone by leaping from Division Six to Division Three in a single year — though Namibia had done the same thing a few years earlier.

By 2009, they were the best team in Division Two. By 2010, they were in the top 20 in the world and competing with those just outside of the Test league.

By 2012, they were officially ranked 13th but were realistically ahead of Kenya and in 12th.

By 2014, they were earmarked to be one of two teams, along with Ireland, to be given Test status if the new two-Tiered test competition is approved.

China are currently ranked worse than Afghanistan was in 2001, but not much worse. China, like Afghanistan, has a history with cricket — the Chinaman, after all, was named after the Chinese Ellis Achong. They have also been improving the way Afghanistan did in 2001. And, while Afghanistan want to get out of a warzone by getting good at cricket, China want to be good at the world’s fifth-most popular sport.

If we follow a similar progress, then China should be just outside of the world league by 2030. They may even be looking at test status soon after that. And if we look at Sri Lanka‘s progress to easy beats of Test cricket to winning a world cup, it could be just 10 or 15 more years and they are the best team in the world.

If China does dominate world cricket, one can be rest assured that their country would support it, and not only are they richer than India, they also have more people. Thus, if that happens, we will look pretty stupid for having India in there, just because they currently provide 80% of cricket’s finances — currently.

And what if another team ends up being the most dominant team in history? ICC will look pretty stupid for including Australia on that basis if, say, South Africa continue their recent dominance of world cricket.

As for England, they are perhaps the only safe team of the Big Three because, no matter what else they do, they are always going to be the country that invented the game — unless, of course, we discover that some other country actually started it.

The very concept seems wrong for multiple reasons. One would prefer a more flexible model that allows for change in case things change in the cricketing world — especially as things have changed in the past.

(Adrian Meredith, an Australian from Melbourne, has been very passionate about cricket since he was seven years old. Because of physical challenges he could not pursue playing the game he so dearly loved. He loves all kinds of cricket – from Tests, ODIs, T20 – at all levels and in all countries and writes extensively on the game)

Catch all the stories on ICC’s Big Three proposal and other key events here

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