April 5, 2011

The best World Cup of all time

But the ICC's decision to chop out the Associates - especially Ireland, who were integral to the excitement - is both baffling and tragic

Four years ago in the Caribbean, it was said that the ICC got the World Cup it deserved. The 2007 tournament was a bloated, corporate, soulless sell-out of an event, infused with a noxious blend of controversy and apathy that turned the self-proclaimed Carnival of Cricket into a six-week wake. In Asia in 2011, however, the ICC got the World Cup that it needed, and that is not the same thing whatsoever.

By the standards set in 2007, not to mention those in South Africa in 2003 and England in 1999, the 2011 tournament was a resounding triumph. In fact, an impromptu survey of approximately 1.2 billion people might well conclude that it was the best World Cup of all time. Admittedly some non-Indian observers might suggest those findings had been skewed a touch, but try telling that to the jubilant masses who spilled out of the Wankhede Stadium and onto Mumbai's Marine Drive on Saturday evening, or to anyone who shared the scenes of delirium in every street of every city, town and village of the world's second-most populous nation.

The funny thing is, those 1.2 billion people are almost certainly right, but not necessarily for the reasons they might assume. Of the 10 World Cups to have taken place since 1975, none has come close to matching the narrative and drama of the tournament just completed - not even 1992, which is commonly cited as the pundits' pick to date. The greatest triumph of this edition lay not in the final outcome but in the journey that was required to reach that crowning moment, for the excellence of the entertainment was not simply an illusion glimpsed in the moment of India's victory. This would have been a World Cup to savour, irrespective of whether Gautam Gambhir and MS Dhoni had managed to turn the tide of the final in their country's favour.

All of which makes Monday's mood-darkening decision in Mumbai so incredibly hard to countenance. The decision to slam the door shut on cricket's Associate nations - in particular Ireland, whose role in the narrative was so fundamental - and revert to a ten-team formula in 2015, makes a mockery of the spectacle we have just been privileged to witness.

Ratnakar Shetty, the tournament director, admitted as much on the eve of the opening ceremony, when he let slip that the group-stage elimination of both India and Pakistan had torpedoed the entire event in 2007. Every available precaution was taken to ensure against a repeat of such a financial disaster, but when England tested the rejigged format to its absolute limits by threatening a group-stage exit at the hands of Ireland and Bangladesh, the doubts crept in. At the time England's struggles appeared to vindicate the tweaks that had been made, but at boardroom level it became clear that changing the locks alone wouldn't be enough to guard against future intrusions. It was time to roll out the razor wire.

The fact that the ICC reached their decision a mere two days after the tournament's conclusion suggests that there was never a decision to be reached in the first place. It was simply a matter of announcing the fait accompli

The decision has been shocking both for its timing and its finality. A sop has been offered for 2019, but by then Associate cricket will have been stagnant for a generation. Even George Dockrell will be in his late twenties and in all probability an England regular - why would or should he squander the prime of his career waiting? - while John Mooney, Kevin O'Brien and all the other heroes of Bangalore will have long since retired. And the fact that the ICC reached their decision a mere two days after the tournament's conclusion suggests that there was never a decision to be reached in the first place. It was simply a matter of announcing the fait accompli.

The wider concern is the lack of concern. The public's initial reaction has been gratifyingly furious, but if ever there was a good day for the ICC to bury bad news, it is the Monday after India have won the World Cup, just as the IPL hype machine is beginning to grind into action. If enough righteous indignation is to be summoned to force the board into a change of heart, then a sizeable proportion of the 1.2 billion are going to have to speak out as well. But with some justification, they are a bit preoccupied right now.

The tone of this article was never intended to be so downbeat. A remarkable event took place in Mumbai on Saturday, and quite rightly, the celebrations throughout India will resonate for weeks and months to come. Dhoni's decisive six in the final could yet become the most replayed shot in cricket's long history, while no one who claims to love the game can take anything other than delight in the decisive role that Sachin Tendulkar played in his sixth and (presumably?) farewell campaign. Moreover, the best team in the tournament emerged with the spoils, and while everyone loves an upset now and again, it's right that class should prevail in the end.

But regardless of all that, the World Cup's postscript is one that ought to freeze the blood of all sports fans, irrespective of how much they've loved or loathed the campaign that preceded it. The most common complaint - particularly from those frequent flyers who took part in the six-week game of subcontinental hopscotch - was that the event was at least a fortnight too long, although that issue is one that is stipulated by the ICC's long-standing broadcasting deal with ESPN Star Sports, and hence a ten-team all-play-all format in 2015 will not lead to a significant reduction of matches or days on the road.

What it will lead to is the loss of one of the key reasons behind the success of 2011. Ireland's victory over England, powered by O'Brien's astounding century, was a performance the like of which we may never again be privileged to witness - it was so unexpected, yet so majestic, that when the deal had been done, and Ireland really had chased 328 to beat England, having at one stage been 111 for 5, it seemed churlish to demean it as an upset. Not even Australia in their pomp could have won a game with more confidence.

The knock-on effect was to electrify the permutations in Group B, where Bangladesh's fluctuations created a six-way tussle for four places. Though they wilted at the last against South Africa, their own story was a vital subplot in itself. It started with the youthful vigour they provided at the opening ceremony - a concept that tends to look laboured at sporting events where there's no Olympic flame to provide a focal point - and continued via the West Indies debacle and the subsequent stoning of the team bus, through to their own crowning moment against England. And all along the way, they - like the musically fuelled Sri Lankans - kept contributing the thrill of packed stadiums, a factor that had been so miserably absent throughout the previous World Cup.

But in the end the whole narrative reverts back to India, and quite rightly so, because this was their year, and they earned it the hard way, soaking up the pressures and the doubts, as well as 28 years of World Cup failure. That they won the final in such style was magnificent, but their journey to that Sri Lanka showdown was every bit as gripping. Along the way they faced up to each of their major rivals, and there was not a dull contest among them. England battled to a tie, South Africa secured a thrilling run-chase, before Australia were dethroned and Pakistan denied in consecutive knock-out encounters.

And then the party that kicked off on Saturday night was something to behold. If the purpose of sport is to fulfill a utilitarian brief of conferring the greatest pleasure for the greatest number, then the 2011 World Cup hit the spot like no other event in history. Sadly, however, there is so much more to it than that. Any sports fan with a moral compass, even one whose every wish has been granted this past week, will recognise that the tournament's true conclusion was signed and sealed not in the Wankhede Stadium, but in a Mumbai board-room, two days after the main event.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • David on April 9, 2011, 10:23 GMT

    the tournament didn't work, once again it was misformatted. the 2 pretournament favourites played in the quarter finals having lost 1 game each (India vs Australia) & to get through the group stages was pretty much a formality to 7 of the 8 nations leaving just bangladesh & West Indies to battle it out. the tournament up until the quarters was almost irrelevant & left 2 of the quarters to be decided by 10 wickets. the semis were decent games but never really had anyone doubting who was going to win. there were 3 matches (from 2 months of cricket) for the tournament worth revisiting, India vs England, England vs Ireland & India vs Sri Lanka. personally i'd call the tournament a fail. Stephen Wardle, totally agree!

  • pramathesh on April 9, 2011, 9:41 GMT

    Was the trophy handed over to captain Dhoni, the original one or fake one?

  • pramathesh on April 9, 2011, 6:58 GMT

    Underdogs, tied matches, close finishes, miracles, chokes and upsets are a must for the 50 over WC tournament to remain popular compared to the 20 over version. Bangladesh, Ireland, England, South AFrica, New Zealand brought interest and excitation in watching WC 2011. Underdogs India won 1983 WC. In that WC, Zimbabwe had reduced India to 5 down for 17 after which Kapil had to make 175 to rescue India from jaws of defeat. In finals WI could not make even 183 runs vs India. Then underdogs Aus won 1987 WC. Then underdogs Pak won 1992 WC. Ireland and Bangladesh should be playing in WC2015. One of the intention of hosting WC should be to spread this game of cricket globally and what ICC has decided for WC 2015 will confine the 50 over game and make it boring.

  • Dummy4 on April 8, 2011, 23:39 GMT

    It may have been 'The best World Cup of all time' - as Andrew Miller asserts, but it was certainly followed up by one of the most disastrous decisions ever made by the ICC. Restricting the next World Cup to only the 10 'international cricket playing nations' is bound to kill off the game in those countries that are excluded. This ranks alongside the ICC's earlier decision to reverse the result of the fourth Pakistan/England match in 2006 - which as we all know was forfeited by Pakistan. On that occasion it was clear that the ICC had been strongly influenced by elements within the Pakistan cricketing hierarchy, who couldn't accept what the rules of cricket state. (Rule 21.3.(a).ii "A match shall be lost by a side which in the opinion of the umpires refuses to play..."). Thankfully the outcome of that regrettable fiasco was that the original result was re-instated... when the MCC reminded the ICC that they had written the rules..! Lets hope the ICC change their minds again...

  • Ben on April 8, 2011, 13:56 GMT

    We should start a grass roots campaign to keep the 'minnows' involved in the next world cup so that our favourite game remains truly worldwide. The only institution that could really do it is cricinfo. With an editorial team comprising untold persuasive powers over those that matter - true lovers of the game - I fell that they could take this, the best World Cup of All Time, and convert it into the best series of all time, nay, a Worldwide one...

  • hash on April 8, 2011, 13:30 GMT

    Ireland deserves to play.....it sure has the capacity to beat any other team in the world......IRELAND, I am with you....

  • Dummy4 on April 8, 2011, 13:02 GMT

    That is what happens when you create mess by beating so-called top teams!!!!

    ICC can still salvage the situation, just ask the 7,8, 9,10 ranked to prove their mettle in a knock out tournament (7 games, SF'sts makes the WC cut) with top four Associate countries.

  • Ali on April 8, 2011, 7:32 GMT

    Oh ya it was. India won in home crowd, earning lot of revenue for ICC. However semi was almost an asia cup. Seems like none of the other team able to survive on solely batting track. Waiting for 2015, how India can defend its title in Aus n New. Some of the remarkable performance brought spark, predictiblity of upsets was at the peak. Shane warne, I cant understand how ppl knew the result before start of the match n specially fairy tale was presented by Haroon Logart even before qualification of India in semis.

  • Sam on April 7, 2011, 22:32 GMT

    @neil99,the no. of games wont change due to the commitment given to espnstar by icc,& also,since u r talking of one upset,some upsets have changed the game of cricket.Sri lanka's win over India in 1979 & India's win over windies in 1983 increased the sport's fanbase in south asia,resulting in the cricket powerhouse of today.Simlarly,Ireland's win over England has caught everyone's attention in ireland & people have started paying attention to the game.Dont u think that's a good aspect?

  • Karthik on April 7, 2011, 8:32 GMT

    I am not sure 1992 WC was good. Many teams were screwed by the "Rain Rule" when they were batting second. Obvious e.g - "22 runs in 1 ball" anyone?SA in Semis and India against Australia. The format was good but then it was good because it only had 9 teams and everyone could play against each other. Now there are 14 teams so that is not possible. The format had to be changed but this WC atleast had 14 teams which was good for those clamoring for Associates participation. For those sore losers who crib about batting pitches this WC, it was far from it. There were average batting scores inspite of Batting PP that was not available in previous WCs. One cannot really help if Oz/Windies/others cannot play quality spin. This is the first time a host nation won on its soil. SA did not do any thing when they hosted in 2003 and what makes some think that SA was the best team. May be on paper but they find ways to lose when pressure comes calling.

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