March 11, 2007

Let the games begin

With a trimmed format and no clear favourites, World Cup 2007 has all the makings of a classic

'The one-day game sustains cricket and affords us the indulgence of Test cricket' © Getty Images

Call it another of cricket's quirks, if you like: every four years, the bridesmaid gets the chance to become the bride, and the event is so resplendent and so momentous that it outshines the real thing. Test cricket, our beloved and noble game, does not, alas, suit itself to a World Cup. But no one should grudge one-day cricket its hour of glory. However much the purists might deride its limitations and its base characteristics, the one-day game sustains cricket and affords us the indulgence of Test cricket. The World Cup is an appropriate tribute to the game's breadwinner.

Of course, it's more than that. It is cricket's most important signpost. Players - and now even coaches - plan their careers around it. However they might hail Test cricket as the superior test of their skills, most players would give anything to be in a World Cup-winning team. It is the only event that determines a champion, however finely the ICC might calibrate its ratings system. This is not to argue that the best team always wins, but that the World Cup provides the only stage where all teams compete over a reasonable enough period of time for the winner to feel legitimate. Ask the South Africans.

In fact, on only four out of eight occasions has the best team won. One-day cricket was almost a different game when West Indies won the World Cup in 1975 and 1979. It was merely an abridged version of Test cricket then and the West Indians, overwhelmingly the best Test side in the world, used their traditional skills to similar effect. They had slips, they bowled bouncers and kept the fielders in. It was only in 1983, when India won with bits-and-pieces players, more by chance rather that design (though, to be fair, they did beat West Indies twice), that other possibilities opened up.

Of course, 1983 was seminal in other ways too. India's enduring love affair with one-day cricket began then, through events both on the field and off it - an influential member of the Indian cricket board was denied a pass to the final at Lord's and vowed to bring the World Cup to the subcontinent. Cricket was never the same again.

'Australia, under Bob Simpson and Allan Border, played total cricket. The sharp single, pivoting for the second run, the slower ball, all became specialised skills' © Getty Images

A different kind of revolution came about in 1987 when Australia, under Bob Simpson and Allan Border, played total cricket. The sharp single, pivoting for the second run, the slower ball, all became specialised skills. Australia became champions by pinching singles and stopping them.

The next tournament, in1992, brought about even more dramatic changes, though some had been the norm in Australia for years: coloured clothing, floodlights, white balls (two of them), and, most importantly, more stringent field restrictions which allowed only two men outside the circle in the first 15 overs. Martin Crowe exploited that last change audaciously, deploying Mark Greatbatch, hitherto known for plodding, to hit over the top and then tempting the opposition to do so by using Dipak Patel, an offspinner, with the new ball.

The Super Sixes came in 1999, and in 2003 the World Cup opened up further with 14 teams participating in the longest and biggest tournament yet, 54 matches over 42 days. Everybody felt it was ill-conceived: it was too long and contained too many meaningless matches. A couple of boycotts and a rained-out match meant Kenya made it to the semi-final.

What, then, of 2007? It has two more minnows, it is longer by five days. And already there are question marks.

The presence of minnows has always been a sensitive issue and opinion on it is starkly divided. Some feel that there is nothing to be gained by setting the lambs up for slaughter. That too many weak teams devalue the tournament. And that they would be better served if, instead of this token benevolence every four years, the ICC gave them more meaningful playing fields all round the year.

But there are equally compelling arguments in favour of their inclusion. World Cup participation means a lot to those teams; for many of their players it is the fulfillment of a lifetime's dream to play alongside their heroes. The World Cup gives them hope, an opportunity to be on the big stage, and it is the best way to show that they belong.

To give credit where it is due, the organisers have got it right this time. Even with two more teams, there are fewer games (51) this time and, more importantly, fewer games in the preliminary round. In 2003, the first round went on for 23 days and contained 42 matches. In comparison, the business end - Super Sixes, semi-finals and final - lasted only 19 days and contained 12 games. This time there are only 24 preliminary matches and they last only 12 days.

Can Australia add one more cup to the kitty? © Getty Images

The real tournament begins with the Super Eights and, with each team playing six matches, promises riveting fare. Counting the first-round encounters, each major team would have played each other once before the semi-finals and any minnow making it to that stage would have truly earned their spot.

Though worries persist about the infrastructure, the itinerary is the best in recent memory. The teams travel less and, since the matches are organised in clusters, it allows fans to plan their travel. Barring upsets, the Super Eights matches too are fixed and, though some would say that this has been done to suit television (it can't be a coincidence that, if all goes to form, India will play Pakistan on a Sunday), it suits the fans - and the journalists too.

So what can we expect from the World Cup this time?

That this is the most open World Cup has now become a cliché. But it is true, and that's the most appealing part. It also promises to be a low-scoring tournament and that's appealing too. Though it was thrilling last month to watch New Zealand twice chase down 300-plus scores against Australia, there is little joy in watching bowlers being thrashed senselessly. If the pitches at the main grounds are anything like the ones in the practice matches, batsmen will have to earn their runs, and that's not a bad thing for the game - even though the television channels might struggle to put together their fours and sixes packages. Spinners will have a role to play and the singles will become vital.

'Spinners will have a role to play and the singles will become vital' © Getty Images

Now it's time to stick one's neck out. Australia will adapt. They have not been the world's No. 1 side by a mile for nothing. South Africa might struggle. There is a reason why they have never been champions. India's batsmen and bowlers will have to score/save the 50 extra runs they concede/fail to score if they are to give themselves a chance of making it to the semi-final. But they will. Pakistan, despite their weak bowling, will be dangerous floaters and New Zealand will make it to the semis, as will Sri Lanka.

Strategies? Innovations? They are most likely to revolve around the powerplays. Don't bet on too many captains being creative about using the powerplays. Most would like to use them at a stretch. But how the batsmen and bowlers respond to the middle overs is likely to decide a large number of games.

Will there be an upset? Bangladesh look the side most capable of causing one and, in Mashrafe Mortaza, they have a bowler who is most likely to contribute to that. But don't count Kenya out. And wouldn't it be wonderful, a perfect vindication for those who believe cricket is primarily a game of skills, if Dwayne Leverock were to come up with a five-wicket haul against a major side?

Enough pontificating. Let the show begin.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine