March 20, 2011

How the World Cup got its groove back

It may be more by accident than by design, but this edition of cricket's showpiece event is already a success

Sometimes, in fact more often than we would care to admit or notice, things fall into place without design. And equally often the reverse is true. The last World Cup was tailored to be perfect. It had the most Associates (six), yet the elimination round was short and sharp (24 matches in 12 days). It was held in one of the most joyful regions in world cricket. And with Australia coming off a series loss against New Zealand, it was meant to be the most open World Cup of all.

But of course it wasn't exactly a tournament to celebrate. Two of the favourites got knocked out, a high-profile coach died in mysterious circumstances, there were hardly any close games, Australia made it a one-way street, and the organisation was terrible. It was the dreariest, most soulless World Cup of all time, surpassing even the greyness of 1999.

This time tedium was written into the script. The round of nothingness was to last a month. Chaos and poor organisation were feared after the early problems with venues and ticketing. And most of all, there were serious apprehensions about the format itself: did the one-day game still have the jazz to stay relevant and viable?

The knockout matches, the only ones supposed to mean anything, are yet to begin, but most of the questions have been answered already. Yes, there have been mismatches, a stone-throwing incident, and problems with tickets involving India matches, but on the whole the tournament can already be hailed as a success. The most irritating thing about it so far has been its theme song, from which there is no escape, and the dullest sight has been that of Stumpy, the tournament's slouchy mascot, trudging around the ground ponderously. Lovers and patrons of the game could live with these.

Andy Zaltzman, whose zest for stats matches his gift for comedy, dug this out a couple of days ago. Using the following parameters: matches won by three wickets or fewer, by 30 runs or fewer, or with two overs or fewer remaining, he calculated that the 2007 World Cup had only seven close matches. In this edition England alone have played six. Finally, after Bangladesh sank to their second abysmal defeat, it became certain that the top eight teams would take their place in the quarter-finals. But what had seemed preordained was hardly simple. A few runs or a couple of wickets here and there, and anything could have happened.

Even in Group A, which moved along relatively sleepily, there was the occasional spark. Canada nearly beat Pakistan. Hiral Patel, all of 19 years and confined to his hotel room in the evenings to prepare for his exams, carved up the Australian fast bowlers with such ferocity that it reminded Ricky Ponting of Virender Sehwag. For four manic overs against Pakistan, Ross Taylor became Sehwag, Viv Richards and Shahid Afridi bundled into one. Also, there was Afridi's guile, a now almost customary hat-trick from Lasith Malinga, pace from Brett Lee and Shaun Tait, and a retirement press conference from the mellow yet compelling Shoaib Akhtar, who declared in all earnestness that going from cricket is like a first death to him.

The MA Chidambaram Stadium, with its tall stands and Adelaide-like canopies, has become the most beautiful cricket ground in India. The fans of Chennai, for long the most knowledgeable and decorous in the country, deserve it

Even after the quarter-finalists were identified, uncertainty remained over who would play who and where. It has created logistical nightmares for the media (some are planning to travel to Dhaka from Colombo via Bangkok), particularly for us at ESPNcricnfo, since we have writers from different countries, but it also means that even the final match - between India and West Indies - has meaning beyond granting the winning team confidence and momentum.

The World Cup has also provided a stage for the subcontinent to showcase its affection for the game. Bangladesh, despite the misery inflicted on them twice by their team, has been overrun by passion and enthusiasm. Nearly 20,000 watched a practice match between England and Pakistan in Fatullah and scenes outside the Shere-Bangla stadium, as indeed in the rest of city, the night before the first match will stay forever in the memory. In Sri Lanka even the neutral matches have been played to near-packed stands. As I write, I'm watching the game between Pakistan and Australia in an almost full house at the Premadasa, and if you heard the noise from outside the ground you'd imagine Sri Lanka were playing.

In India, where the excitement seems to follow the national team (I watched four planeloads of fans descend on Nagpur on the morning of the match against South Africa, some having paid Rs 15,000 (about US$ 330) for a one-way ticket, and every hotel room in the city was sold out) matches involving the top teams have drawn reasonable crowds.

Over 20,000 turned up at the Eden Gardens to watch South Africa take on Ireland, and the din in the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai would have been louder than that at most English grounds when England were involved in their do-or-die battle against West Indies.

The organisers have learnt from their two dreadful mistakes in the previous World Cup. Barring the India matches, where the demand has far outstripped supply and most tickets have been reserved for members and sponsors, they have kept the prices low. At some Sri Lankan grounds, you could buy a ticket for as little as Rs 50 (about 50 US cents). But most of all, fans have been allowed to be fans. They have been allowed to bring in flags and musical instruments, cameras and phones. Security, while adequate, hasn't been overbearing.

One of the lasting legacies of the World Cup will be the stadiums themselves. They have never been as spectator-friendly as they now are. The new ground in Mirpur was always world-class, as was the one in Nagpur. Now, most of the other Indian grounds have joined them. Capacity at Eden Gardens and Wankhede has been reduced to increase spectator comfort, there are provisions for food stalls, and bathrooms, a basic but hugely neglected aspect of cricket grounds in these parts of the world, have been upgraded. The MA Chidambaram Stadium, with its tall stands and Adelaide-like canopies, has become the most beautiful cricket ground in India. The fans of Chennai, for long the most knowledgeable and decorous in the country, deserve it.

Above all, the World Cup has provided the best retort possible to those who doubted the future of the format or the tournament. The cricket hasn't been of consistently high quality. In fact, matches have often been exciting because teams and players haven't been good enough to hold on to dominant positions. But these matches have underlined, if any confirmation was ever needed, that the 50-over game provides a tapestry of drama and fluctuations that Twenty20, despite its raw appeal, never can. Despite its limitations, the one-day game has space for a bowler to string together a spell of bowling, for strategy, for planning a dismissal, for close-in fielders, for the building of an innings, and for a team to stage a comeback.

Finally, the World Cup told us a truth that we have known, and one those who govern game have mostly chosen to ignore: what the one-day game needs is not constant fiddling with or sexing up; it needs meaning and occasion.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Magesh on March 21, 2011, 23:40 GMT

    I dont like the format of this world cup edition. Only 10 teams should have participated in this world cup, and every league game should have been made to count similar to 1992 format. And the finals should be made best of 3 or best of 5 or even best of 7 like NBA. That would make it more interesting and the winner would then deserve the title of world champions.

  • Rajinda on March 21, 2011, 23:36 GMT

    Actually as far as the theme song goes, it is not bad. Quite a catchy tune after hearing for a few times. I have only one problem with it, & I wish someone thought of it at the beginning. Why is it only in HINDI? I mean the same tune could have been used to create one in SINHALA (for Sri Lanka) and on ein BANGLA & play that version when they play at the stadiums in those 2 countries. AFter all they are co-hosts, aren't they? I don;t think doing it in those 2 laguages would be an issues, sine there are many SINHALA songs that are direct HINDI tunes, with SINHALA words. I am sure BANGLA could do the same. It would have related better to each country. Unless the write/musician had copyright issues, ICC & organizers missed something unique there. May be it's still not too late to come up with this for the closing ceremony!!!!

  • Pratik on March 21, 2011, 21:11 GMT

    The 1999 Cup was a much more riveting one than the one played out this year. @ Nick Swanson: The 2007 was bad, not because India and Pakistan got knocked out, but due to very few close contests, suffocating restrictions on fans and a bunch of one sided games. Plus, yeah that World Cup was about as endless as the current one.

  • Swarup on March 21, 2011, 20:28 GMT

    It may be an exciting WC in the subcontinent, but while I can't speak for other non-subcontinent countries, here in Australia it's hasn't raised the interest worthy of a showpiece event. The games have been good and the tournament is more open, but the drip-feeding of one game a day and the slow pace of the first round have not been conducive to generating interest over here. The ICC still has a lot to learn from FIFA in conducting a tournament which creates excitement amongst the participating nations, let alone the rest of the world.

  • Nasser on March 21, 2011, 19:40 GMT

    This format is not good as too much will be left to chance, with the top 8 teams playing knock-out games. The 1992 format was the best as league games were played which made the competition more fair and hence more enjoyable.

    Associates need to be encouraged; but should be limited to 2 in the WC; and there should be 2 groups of 6 each playing league games, with the top 2 teams of both groups taking part in the semis (no quarter-finals).

  • John on March 21, 2011, 17:52 GMT

    This world cup has been too long and been filled with far too many mismatches. You could have accurately predicted the 8 quarterfinalists with no difficulty whatsoever before the tournament began. Now, after a month of preliminaries, the only meaningful and exciting portion of the competition will be over in about ten days.

    Either a super eight/super six format should have been used or the 1992 format (only 9/10 teams playing a round-robin).

  • ahmed on March 21, 2011, 16:03 GMT

    "surpassing even the greyness of 1999" Please explain to me what was grey about the 99 World Cup? Was it Zimbabwe's spectacular showing? The SA-Aus matches? Bangladesh beating Pakistan? Shoaib akhtar, glenn mcgrath and geoff allot demonstrating the art of fast bowling? Lance Klusener?

    Oh I know, it was because india got eliminated that the 99 world cup was so dull. If only every world cup could be as exciting as 2003 (sic)!

  • Dummy4 on March 21, 2011, 15:49 GMT

    "England had some crazy results! The Associates almost won for about 10 overs! This is a great World Cup!" "2007 was bad, because India was upset!" Really? Is this where the sport is now? Because if it is, why even bother having a World Cup at all. Endless, constant bilateral matches aren't boring enough. We need endless tournaments too. It's a sad sign for the sport, to be sure.

  • Senthil on March 21, 2011, 13:59 GMT

    Excellent Article once again from the Editor. Well the world cup already seen many close games than it has happened in the last 4 years is really a Interesting, Out of 7, were involved by India, Defending 411 against SL, 1 run win against SA Twice. Now England involved in all their Group Matches as a Thriller. Perfect, I think 12 teams would be Perfect and a Round robin and top 4 to Semis would be a good format but Give a chance to Associate teams in b/w this 4 years as the the tournament Progressed Canada done really better and Kenya also Improved, so Giving a bit more exposure to this teams in the 4 years gap will help them to perform well at least competitive during world cup, ICC need to open the eye about Associates.

  • Vinish on March 21, 2011, 12:50 GMT

    it is strange that WC has been a success and held the interest of experts and fans, even though the format is terribly flawed. West Indies did not win a single match against a test team (Excuse BD please) and still they qualified and India were already assured of their place in QF before they could beat a test team (BD Excuse please). The most flawed format ever.

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