<
>

Explainer: Cricket's possible return to the Olympic Games

Performers play cricket at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics Getty Images

The return of cricket to the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022, and the BCCI coming under the purview of India's National Anti-Doping Agency, an affiliate of the World Anti-Doping Agency, are being seen as crucial steps in cricket's journey to becoming an Olympic sport.

New sports are typically added to the Olympic Games seven years in advance, and the ICC is pushing for cricket's inclusion in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. However, with the only instance of cricket in the Olympics dating back to 1900, questions remain as to what the game may look like at future Olympics.

Where do we stand at the moment?

There's a chance that cricket, after a 128-year gap, will be played at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 2028. What we know is this: Manu Sawhney, the ICC's chief executive, told the MCC's World Cricket Committee recently that strong progress had been made to ensure the game is given the global platform many of its custodians want it to gain - those including, seemingly for the first time, India. The update came from Mike Gatting, the WCC chairman, who said "it would be fantastic" if it happens, adding, "It's two weeks [the duration of the Olympic Games], that's a good thing about it, it's not a month, so it's one of those where scheduling for two weeks should be fine once every four years once you do the first one. You're going to have - one hopes - a four-year period, once you know you've been accepted into the Olympics, that gives you a chance to actually shape your two weeks, so it's not as if it is butted into the schedule."

The question of India - why is it important?

Well, India is important when it comes to world cricket anyway, but crucially, the ICC had risked being declared non-compliant by WADA had the BCCI continued to resist complying with NADA, which would have ruled out cricket's Olympic participation in the foreseeable future. BCCI's change of heart on the subject has cleared that pathway.

This is what Gatting had to say on the matter: "One of the problems has been negated, where the BCCI is now working with NADA, the drugs agency, which it wasn't previously a part of. That will help a long way towards the sport being whole, which is what we need it to be to apply for the Olympics, both men and women to play and all countries to comply."

The BCCI had been opposed to coming under NADA's ambit for several years, consistently arguing that it is an autonomous organisation and not a national sports federation, and is therefore not under NADA's jurisdiction. The BCCI's primary concern with coming under NADA was the contentious whereabouts clause that deals with out-of-competition testing. But, while the concern remains, BCCI chief executive Rahul Johri said recently, "We have listed them [concerns] out and they [India's sports ministry] have agreed to address all these."

If things don't change, that's a positive at least as far as cricket at the Olympics is concerned.

It needs to be mentioned here that the England and Wales Cricket Board, too, had reservations on the matter, but as reported by ESPNcricinfo in June 2016, that stance had softened in recognition of the growth that would be possible were cricket to place itself under the Olympic umbrella.

Commonwealth Games 2022 - a positive sign

As mentioned before, cricket was played in the 1900 Paris Olympics, but that isn't taken too seriously by anyone. Why? Well, it was played between two teams, one from Great Britain and one from France, and neither team was a representative one. The British side was made up of a touring club outfit called Devon and Somerset Wanderers, while the hosts were made up of players from local clubs. Not quite cricket, some would say.

There was no cricket in a world event after that till 1998, when cricket - 50-overs a side - was contested between 16 sides at the Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games. Top teams took part, and they fielded top players, with South Africa - Jacques Kallis, Shaun Pollock and Mark Boucher, among other big names in their XI - beating the Steve Waugh-led all-star Australians in the final.

Again, there was a drought until mid-August this year when it was confirmed that women's T20s would feature in the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, and all matches - between eight teams in an eight-day timeframe - would be played at Edgbaston. That must count as a positive update, one that will likely help the sport enter the world arena.

What's the best format?

It is the prerogative of the IOC-recognised international sports federation - the ICC in cricket's case - to set qualification criteria as well as playing conditions. However, this has to be done in accordance with the Olympic Charter. In addition to the three formats played internationally, the emergence of T10 - advocated by Shahid Afridi as cricket's best route to the Olympics - and The Hundred means that the ICC has plenty to ponder, and enough to pick from. However, having granted T20I status to all members, that appears the most feasible option as it can facilitate maximum participation, which is likely to be high on the ICC's agenda.

Which countries can participate, and how would they qualify?

In football, for the 2020 Japan Olympics, 15 countries qualified through various regional tournaments, and Japan were granted a berth by virtue of being hosts. In hockey, a not-too-dissimilar a pathway led to the qualification of 11 teams plus Japan. Something along the lines of the qualification process for the T20 World Cup could be employed to determine which countries outside the ones ranked in the top ten qualify for the Olympics, with USA - the hosts [Los Angeles] in 2028 - qualifying automatically.

Further, for the sport to gain popularity but also remain competitive at the Olympics, bridging the gap between the top ten and the rest could be another issue for ICC to address. Many of the established football teams, for example, can only field Under-23 teams in the qualifiers, and only three players above the age of 23 at the Olympics proper.

Depending on what the discussions are and how many countries end up participating, there may be eight or 16 teams in the fray. Importantly, even if they are up there in the rankings, there can't be a West Indies team. In the Olympics, as in the Commonwealth Games, individual countries participate, so the teams will have to be Jamaica, Barbados, etc. Even at the 1998 Kuala Lumpur event, among the 16 teams were Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, and Barbados.

Why is this important for cricket?

If cricket has to become a global game at some stage in the not-too-distant future, the Olympics are about as big a stage as any to make a strong case. It's unlikely to immediately result in every country producing top-drawer teams, but it should go some way towards making that happen.