February 16, 2011

Why we need a World Cup

Every sport requires a tournament that marks its pinnacle, that provides the ultimate testing ground for players and teams, that is a fitting shop window for the game

The 2011 World Cup is upon us. Already the teams have arrived and though the final is seven weeks away their prospects are under discussion. Whether the Cricket World Cup can retain interest for so long remains to be seen. Suddenly all sorts of nations are playing against each other. Suddenly all the great players of the era have reported for duty. In that regard cricket is better placed than soccer. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo came within a whisker of missing the last football World Cup. That cannot happen in cricket. Eventually the final was won by the best team and the winning goal was scored by a master.

The intensity of the debate about the forthcoming tournament reminds the talk shops within the community of a simple truth. As far as the wider public is concerned a World Cup determines the world champion. Never mind that 50-over cricket is not the highest form of the game. Never mind that one-day cricket is notoriously fickle - though it has seemed quite predictable in the last few World Cups. Such niceties are lost on the crowd as it sits agog in the stadium or as it huddles around TV sets in remote villages. Indeed, they are lost on the players. To win a World Cup is the ultimate dream. As much could be told from the faces of the South African players as they came to terms with premature and unexpected elimination in 2003. Had a death occurred in the family they could not have looked grimmer. Victory brings the unbridled joy detected on the streets of Kolkata in 1983 and Colombo a decade or so later.

In part, life is a battle against anonymity. The role of sport cannot be understood except with that in mind. Otherwise it is, as the more snobbish of the pseudo-intellectuals often point out, merely an unholy mixture of entertainment and ego. A nation feels alive that lifts a prestigious trophy contested by every nation on earth, or at any rate those exposed to the game (in cricket's case that means roughly 105 - bear in mind that thousands of people now play the game in Papua New Guinea and that Sierra Leone recently reached the final stages of the Under-19 World Cup, only to be prevented from taking part due to visa complications).

For a while winning a World Cup overwhelms the problems of daily life. Of course they cannot cure them. Ironically Arjuna Ranatunga, Sri Lanka's victorious leader, is in hot water with the authorities in his own country after taking part in a demonstration demanding the release from prison of General Fonseka, the defeated Presidential candidate and his party leader. Life goes on - or not, in the case of my friend Lasantha Wickramatunga, the fearless newspaper editor whose assassination lies at the heart of these contentions. Sport can create a delirium that overcomes these complications even as it draws attention to them.

Sport needs champions and especially world champions. As much can be told from the excitement that attends the fights for the heavyweight crown, or at any rate those between legitimate and talented contenders. As much can be told from the response of athletes upon winning gold medals. It is quite something to be the best in the world in any capacity. Sport offers that promise. In most walks of life these things are a matter of opinion. In sport it is often a proven fact.

Sport's craving for champions stems from that opportunity. Of course it serves several purposes, gives young males a chance to prove their courage without unduly harming their rivals, spouses a little time away from their beloveds, and allows the age-old debate about strength and speed and skill to be settled in the ring or on the field. Alas the settlement is only temporarily for the terrible truth is that sporting success is fleeting. As every gunslinger knows, there is always another person emerging who thinks he is a fraction faster. And sooner or later he is right.

World Championships provide testing grounds where players, teams and nations can prove their nerve and ability. The pomp and ceremony of the opening and closing help to set the tournament apart from its peers, tells all and sundry that the time has come for those seeking glory and convinced of their capacity to stand up. As the fallen angel called out in Paradise Lost: "Speak now or forever hold your peace."

The public knows these things. It is only the experts, like your correspondent, who quibble, and the authorities who mess it up with bad organisation. Inescapably the World Cup is the game's shop window and the victors deserve their title and the ensuing celebrations. All the more reason to stage an event capable of capturing the imagination. The chance only comes along every four years.

All the more reason to retain 50-over cricket. It is inconceivable that the winners of the Twenty20 version could be regarded as champions of the world for the next few years. Indeed it can be argued that Twenty20 ought to be reserved for provincial teams and franchises. After all it's a spectacle designed to attract audiences. It does not test anything of substance.

In part, life is a battle against anonymity. The role of sport cannot be understood except with that in mind. Otherwise it is, as the more snobbish of the pseudo-intellectuals often point out, merely an unholy mixture of entertainment and ego

World Championships are the stuff of dreams. Rest assured, I can still remember the 1966 football World Cup, can name the England line-up that played in that tournament, can describe every goal scored by the hosts, can recall the distinctive clap adopted by home supporters, can repeat Kenneth Wolstenholme's commentary as Geoff Hurst ran the length of the field in the last seconds of extra time.

Only later did realisation dawn that it had been a dreadful championship, ruined by brutal tackles, muddy pitches, defensive play, weak referees and cynical sides. Pele had been kicked off the field. Only Eusebio, Bobby Charlton and Franz Beckenbauer rose above the nastiness.

Don't tell that little boy that the 1966 World Cup was a stinker. Don't tell the 100,000 supporters packed into Wembley in that summer afternoon. Doubtless the critics were acerbic and correct. Certainly standards were much higher in Mexico in 1970. Don't tell the Sri Lankans that the 1996 cricket final was a dud because the stadium was half empty at the start and because the atmosphere remained curiously flat. From the Sri Lankan viewpoint it was a tense and unforgettable day, one of rare triumph, a day the local heroes defied history to slay the mighty Australians. Supporters do not care about the rest of it.

And World championships serve another purpose. They provide an arena in which truly great cricketers can assert themselves. In that regard it's easier in cricket with its man-against-man aspect. It is a raw game with a civilised surface, an individual game in the guise of a team activity.

Clive Lloyd's innings in 1975 set the pattern. Even now the lithe ferocity of his strokeplay lingers in the mind. Viv Richards came next, with his awesome and controlled attack in 1979. Richards used to walk on the balconies in the early rounds, urging comrades to take him to Lord's. He was aghast when Somerset dismissed Nottinghamshire for a paltry score in a domestic final in 1983. How was he going to score a hundred? Only great players can think along those lines, and those heading for a fall.

Although his intervention was brief, Kapil Dev's stunning catch to remove Richards in the 1983 final was another instance of a great player seizing the moment. Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram. Aravinda de Silva, Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist have imposed themselves in finals.

Now comes the 2011 edition. Anything can happen in lesser events. As a rule, though, World Cups, and Olympics for that matter, produce the right winners and inspire the best players. The early rounds might not tell us much but the semi-finals and final will tell us all we need to know. That is the harsh reality. It is the moment of truth. No one but a fool ever mistook sport for a kindly uncle.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It