March 16, 2011

Don't knock the World Cup

The enthusiasm of the crowds, the organisation, the number of competitive matches, and the fact that three countries are sharing the load, has made this one a tournament worth watching

Let's stop bagging this World Cup. As far as can be gleaned from a relatively brief exposure, it is going to be the most enjoyable since the first World Cup was staged in this neck of the woods in 1987. It's no use getting locked into a position. Better to sample the atmosphere, watch the matches, observe the crowd figures and let events speak for themselves.

Certainly the competition has its flaws. It was absurd to arrange one match on most days because it drew attention to the uneven contests and meant that teams were playing too infrequently. Ricky Ponting observed that his players had been rusty. Tractors get rusty after a few months idling in the elements. Cricketers are supposed to remain sharp and gleaning, especially during World Cup campaigns.

The misuse of replacements and substitutes also demands censure. That Australia could replace an ailing fast bowler with a vital batsman was ridiculous. Eoin Morgan, on the other hand, has withdrawn and come back again, another ludicrous gap in the regulations. Of course these sides were not responsible for the rules. Nor were they alone in suffering injuries. Numerous players have been obliged to withdraw, including Kevin Pietersen and Dwayne Bravo.

Substitute fieldsmen have also been coming and going at an alarming rate. It's high time umpires and match referees took control of the position. Luke Wright has spent more time on the field than some of his playing colleagues. Cricket has become soft. Substitutes and runners should be banned, along with endless drinks breaks. It's high time over rates were speeded up and dinner breaks shortened. It is supposed to be an entertainment.

Most of these objections are minor irritations and not reserved for this tournament. Some will complain about the Associates, but they are narrow-minded folk. Cricket cannot afford to be complacent about its top 10 nations and ought to be seeking fresh pastures. Other games regard places in a World Cup as a reward and an encouragement. Cricket remains short-sighted. A few one-sided matches are a small price to pay for the opportunity to spread the game.

Different opinions can be held on these topics but it's harder to criticise this World Cup as a whole. In terms of organisation, crowds and fun it has surpassed expectations. A small crowd was anticipated for the match between Australian and Kenya in Bangalore. Instead thousands turned up, and a fine time was had by all.

Happily the ICC absorbed some lessons from the debacle in the Caribbean. Most importantly they realised that ticket prices ought to be geared towards local incomes, not supposedly wealthy visitors from far-off places. The cheap seats at the Chinnaswamy Stadium cost roughly 30 cents. Locals could afford it and turned up in numbers.

Likewise the authorities realised that drums and trumpets are part and parcel of one-day cricket and indeed the game at large. Cricket is not a torture chamber. The idea that all and sundry are supposed to sit with glum faces and behave properly was simply stupid.

Putting the tournament in the hands of three nations has also worked a treat because each has taken pride in its performance and none has been overburdened. Pity that Pakistan was not able to assist. By all accounts a vibrant atmosphere has attended all the matches in Bangladesh. At times emotions have run too high, with stones thrown at team buses, and a member of the BBC production team assaulted after the home team's thrilling victory over England. Obviously these excesses ought to be condemned and investigated. Better exuberance, though, than coldness.

Cricket cannot afford to be complacent about its top 10 nations and ought to be seeking fresh pastures. Other games regard places in a World Cup as a reward and an encouragement. Cricket remains short-sighted. A few one-sided matches are a small price to pay for the opportunity to spread the game

Not so many years ago narrow-minded folk talked disparagingly about this region but they have changed their tune. Indeed they seem to have forgotten ever singing it. Nowadays even the rednecks feel at home. Money has had a part to play in the turnaround. Moreover the host countries - and hopes remain high that the likes of Afghanistan and Nepal can join their ranks - retain their enthusiasm for cricket. Any game that cannot touch people is not long of this world.

Sri Lanka has staged some fine matches, often before full houses. The Premadasa was packed to the timbers for the meeting with the Australians, only for rain to force the match to be abandoned after 30 overs. Pallekele, the new ground in Kandy, was bursting with energy for all its matches, and again enthusiasm was high.

The Lankans have put on a good show. Like India and Pakistan they have gone through the process experienced by so many newly independent nations, from copying the colonialists to a flexing of local muscle and eventually on to true independence of the mind.

The last time the Lankans staged World Cup matches they were thwarted by boycotts undertaken by Australian and West Indian teams alarmed by past incidents and reluctant to take even the slightest risk. Happily every invitation was accepted this time and every team has felt safe and welcome. Although its newest ground was built in the jungle, and no matches were staged in Galle, Sri Lanka deserves no less.

By the look of things Lankan cricket is in good hands. Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene are intelligent, committed and capable senior players with a few years left in them. They can help guide the youngsters. Never has the role of elders been more important than it has become in this era of IPL and instant gratification.

India has been its usual self, a whirl of energy, a stronghold of the game. To turn on the television has been to find the game debated by an extraordinary array of past players, and matches constantly replayed. Having watched only one match on TV at the time of writing, it is not possible to say much. Certainly the belting dished out to enthusiasts seeking tickets was unwarranted but otherwise the headlines have mostly been favourable. Moreover the new and refurbished stadiums are not as dirty or inhospitable as previously. Long may it last.

Overall the mood has been cheerful. To my mind the 1992 World Cup in Australia remained flat. The one on the subcontinent in 1996 was too tense. The 1999 tournament in England never really came alive. Like its predecessor in '96, the 2003 edition was spoilt by boycotts. And, alas, the Caribbean's first World Cup was an exercise in sterility.

Perhaps the competition has not been that hot. But then cricket is played by a fraught bunch of nations. It is no small thing that all of them are playing their full parts in this competition and getting along famously. Certainly it has been an event without rancour.

Assuming no disheartening scandal emerges in the meantime, the best of this World Cup might lie ahead. By no means is it inconceivable that the semi-finals might include teams representing predominantly Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian countries. Or else they might feature white, brown and black. Or else sometimes warring nations might find themselves competing on the same field and shaking hands at the end.

Cricket has its trials and tribulations, its thieves and cheats. Much less attention is paid to its glories, and most particularly to its possibilities. With a bit of luck they will be on display in the later stages of an admittedly long-winded tournament.

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

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