It wasn’t hard to determine what the theme of next year’s World Cup is set to be, given the ICC’s choice of venue for its event to mark the tournament’s one-year countdown.
A bar and courtyard in East London’s iconic Brick Lane, the heart of the capital’s Bangladeshi community, was jam-packed with legends of tournaments past, as well as fans and kids representing all ten of the competing nations. It amounted to a call to arms to the myriad cultures that make up the British Isles, to rally round and support an event that is returning to these shores for the first time in two decades.
It will do so, according to the tournament organisers, with appetites whetted and lessons learnt from the two ICC events that took place in England last year – the Champions Trophy and Women’s World Cup. Both passed off without a hitch, allowing David Richardson, the ICC chief executive, to breathe a sigh of relief at once again working with the ECB, a board which has “a culture of doing things well in advance, as opposed to other parts of the world where there is a culture of leaving things to last minute”.
On one key aspect of the World Cup strategy, however, the ICC and ECB haven’t seemed quite so aligned in recent weeks. In spite of their shared commitment to participation, particularly among Asian communities, the recent comments of the ECB chairman, Colin Graves, that young people “are just not attracted to cricket”, prompted a diplomatic response from Richardson, who clearly hopes that next summer’s events will provide a more thorough refutation of that claim.
“That is very much an English viewpoint,” Richardson said. “Globally we are seeing in our sport, compared to other sports, the average age of the fan is lower than even football and certainly rugby. Market by market, it varies widely – in England, I think, there is a bit of a challenge making sure we re-engage with the youth and grow the game from a participation point of view – but elsewhere in the world, it is quite positive.”
That implication was borne out by ticket sales for last summer’s Champions Trophy. According to the ECB’s own figures, supporters of a South Asian heritage accounted for 40 percent of the total sales, boosted no doubt by the presence of three Asian teams alongside England in the semi-finals. For standard bilateral events featuring England and a touring team, however, that figure has been just 3 percent.
Nevertheless, Steve Elworthy, the tournament director, accepts that there is still room for improvement, in spite of a 90 percent attendance figure during the Champions Trophy, particularly in reaching beyond cricket’s traditional supporters and engaging those for whom the World Cup may yet be their first glimpse of the sport.
“The criticism [last year] was that it didn’t necessarily break out of the cricket bubble,” Elworthy said. “But 55 percent of the people who came to the Champions Trophy hadn’t been to cricket in the last five years or so – there was a huge Asian support base for it – we want to build on that.”
Plans to extend the World Cup’s reach could include a bespoke opening ceremony on the eve of the tournament, while the notion of Fan Parks and “inner-city take-overs” – “from Durham right down to Taunton” – are also being discussed.
“We have stated ambitions to engage with a million kids between now and the end of the tournament,” Elworthy added. “We have 100,000 tickets earmarked for under-16s for the World Cup. We have an opportunity to re-engage and drive huge participation.”
And that message will doubtless be music to the ears of the ECB hierarchy, whose bid to reboot the sport’s popularity in England and Wales has been dented in recent weeks by a hostile reception to their proposed 100-ball format.
And Richardson himself wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about the notion of a fourth format for a sport that is already struggling to balance the competing demands of Tests, 50-over and T20s.
“Our strategy is clear in that we’ve got three formats of the same game, which is challenging in itself to keep them from cannibalising each other,” he said. “But what it does do is provide us an opportunity to provide an offering to everybody, every type of cricket fan, from the traditional old Test cricket fan to a youngster who wants something to be happening every ball.
“And the 50-over version, I think, is that perfect fit between Test and T20. It provides a perfect day’s entertainment, we’ve seen that around the world – it is very popular elsewhere in the world — and the World Cup has got that prestige which I think will help cement 50-over cricket’s popularity well into the future.”
“But certainly there isn’t an appetite to increase and create another format.”
Asked if the ECB needed help from the ICC to frame their message, particularly in the form of a successful staging of the World Cup, Richardson responded: “We don’t need to hold their hand or do anything [like that]. They are quite capable themselves, I’m sure.
“But the bottom line is that this does present a huge opportunity – and we saw it with the Women’s World Cup – to attract a new audience to get people enthused who weren’t necessarily going to cricket matches season after season. I think there is a huge opportunity in having an event in your own country.”