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