Momentum is building for the first FIFA World Cup to be held in Southeast Asia. During the recent World Cup in Russia, Asian Football Confederation secretary-general Peter Velappan said there was a “good possibility” of a joint bid by several countries in the region, including Singapore and Malaysia, for the 2034 edition.
For all its shenanigans and well-chronicled chaos, FIFA undoubtedly has a genuine desire to spread the world’s most popular sport’s showpiece event around the world. Famously, it held the 1994 edition in the U.S. – leading to a popularity surge - then eight years later ventured to East Asia and South Africa in 2010. Russia was new terrain as will Qatar be in 2022 – of course, eyebrows were raised during those bids but, nonetheless, soccer is living up to its standing as the undisputed world game.
“It’s FIFA’s idea to popularize football by spreading the World Cup to the whole world, not just limiting it to some sections,” Velappan said. “They would be very happy to do that (for Southeast Asia to host the World Cup).”
Cricket, conversely, has not been inclusive – reflective of its innate conservatism and power grabs from its heavy hitters. Fueled by overwhelming fandom in the subcontinent, it is one of the most popular sports in the world yet has a stranglehold from three countries – India, England and Australia.
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The "big three" still dominate the sport testament to its major men’s events being held in those countries until 2023. The last major tournament not to feature in the ‘big three’ was the 2012 World T20 in Sri Lanka and none have been held in a country beyond the Test world – the top 12 countries in the world who hold ‘elite’ status.
When just three countries are rotating the major tournaments, it’s easy to be cynical of cricket’s efforts to develop beyond its traditional sphere. However, there has been a push for a World Cup or World T20 to be played in the lucrative market of the U.S. with an influential proponent being Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland, who has touted New York’s Central Park as being a potential venue during a World T20.
With some groundswell for a major tournament to be played in new terrain, Malaysian Cricket Association (MCA) president Mahinda Vallipuram believes Southeast Asia looms as an intriguing location, much like the apparent mindset from FIFA chiefs. Vallipuram thinks a World T20 – the world cup for Twenty20, cricket’s shortest format - should be played in Malaysia and Singapore down the track.
Through its British historical footprint, cricket has a rich tradition in those countries with several prominent limited-over series being played there over the years. After a barren stretch, Malaysia has re-emerged and hosted last year’s Under 19 Asia Cup and the Women’s Asia Cup in June.
In October, Malaysia will host a bilateral series between Australia and Pakistan women’s teams. Malaysian cricket authorities have long attempted to lure Pakistan, who have been cricketing vagabonds since the late 2000s. Earlier in the decade, Malaysia was in the running to become a home base for Pakistan but lost out to the UAE.
However, the countries have maintained ties and a Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) contingent traveled to Malaysia in April to scope the cricket infrastructure there. Potential scheduling conflicts with emerging T20 leagues in the UAE forced the PCB to look at alternative options in hosting international matches. The PCB has decided to use the women’s series as a trial of Malaysia’s cricket infrastructure and ability to stage elite international cricket.
Vallipuram hopes a World T20 will be staged in Malaysia and Singapore within the next decade. Most notably, the Kinrara Oval in Kuala Lumpur is an internationally recognized stadium, while a major sports stadium is being developed in Johor Bahru near the border of Singapore.
Singapore has its flashy new Sports Hub with its centerpiece 55,000 seat stadium capable of being configured for cricket purposes but has yet to host a bat and ball match. “I’ve told Singapore of potentially a combined World T20 – either men’s or women’s - bid in the future, possible for the mid to late 2020s,” Vallipuram tells me. “I can’t see why we can’t host an entire World T20 tournament as we have a number of grounds in numerous cities. In Malaysia we have shown we can host international matches and I think we have a very stable environment.”
Vallipuram says Southeast Asia has been “overlooked in the past”. “Malaysia and Singapore have a massive population of expatriates from the subcontinent so I think that would ensure big crowds,” he says. “I think it is important to develop the game more widely, not just the Test countries.”
While soccer continues to spread its tentacles and with other major sports basketball and rugby doing likewise, cricket chiefs will need to answer some uncomfortable questions. At the forefront - will the sport’s development stagnate if cricket remains anchored within its confines?