February 10, 2015

Let's recapture the spirit of '92

One-day cricket was at its freshest and most unpredictable 23 years ago

Picturesque Hagley Oval will host the opening game of this World Cup © Getty Images

Twenty-three years on, the Cup comes back down under. What have we learnt since that moment when Imran Khan lifted the trophy on behalf of his cornered tigers? How has the tournament, and the one-day game itself, changed since that time, when coloured uniforms and white balls took centre stage in such an event for the first time?

The colourful pyjama look took 15 years to finally embrace the Packer formula of day-night cricket, which began in 1977-78. When it did, in 1992, along with an exciting format of everyone playing each other, including the reintroduction of South Africa, the event couldn't have been better laid out.

All nine teams played a part in conditions that resembled a potpourri of everything the world offered: slow subcontinental-type pitches in Auckland and Wellington, English conditions in Christchurch and Hamilton, a classic New Zealand seamer in chilly Dunedin, a bit of the Windies in Melbourne, a touch of South Africa in Perth and Brisbane. Each team had a taste of home, and of each other.

At the halfway stage, the eventual winner was on death row, backed into a corner. That Pakistan fought back from nowhere and triumphed due to their greater talent is partly testimony to how well the event was set up.

On February 14, the latest version will start on a fresh new ground in Christchurch and a drop-in pitch in Melbourne. From there, almost every ground or pitch in New Zealand will resemble nothing to what was prepared in 1992. Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch have moved real estate. Auckland has a completely new look as a rehashed rugby ground, with a pitch positioned so that a straight hit is less than 45 metres away from the fence. Only Hamilton and Napier have retained a similar feel to last time, except today, the pitches are batting paradises: where once 230 was likely to emerge triumphant, now 330 is par.

In Australia, the Gabba and Adelaide Oval have been completely rebuilt, and the others have all had notable makeovers beyond the boundary to accommodate large followings for winter sports. It's a natural evolution - part of professional sport leaving its amateur days behind.

Who would be a bowler in this form of the game, especially a spinner, now that two new balls are needed because of the inability to manufacture a white ball that can last?

This first month will be a celebration of everyone's styles, cultures and attitudes, if not the tense, tight affair from the outset that marked 1992.

Afghanistan are the latest arrival to the Cup stage. They have earned a chance to shine from a meagre standing even 10 years previously. Ireland have grown up and may even go a step further in their development by knocking out one of the underperforming heavyweights.

Scotland and Zimbabwe will compete in their way: honest and simple, reckless and flamboyant, respectfully. By March 18, we will have 14 reduced to eight, and then it's a free for all. We can speculate, even predict for fun - as I have done already - but the fact that round-robin play will be fairly predictable (three tough games and three much easier ones), with the odd surprise, turns the playoffs into a luck-on-the-day scenario.

Pakistan having to win their last six matches on the trot to win in 1992 is an example of how momentum can be vital. In this present-day format, momentum and edge can be easily lost when a quarter-final spot is almost guaranteed.

In 1992, New Zealand faced a unique dilemma when we faced Pakistan in the final round-robin match in Christchurch. We had already qualified for the semi-finals, but if we beat Pakistan and secured eight wins out of eight, we would have travelled to Sydney to face Australia, instead of playing in Auckland, retaining home advantage.

This was an agreement made between the organisers - the trade-off being that New Zealand hosted the opening game. This was the greatest flaw in the co-host concept, and one that put New Zealand in a difficult situation as we contemplated what to do. Naturally, in the end, we declared to the fans that we would play our best team and give it our all. We got smashed, and Pakistan picked up their momentum, while we took a hit. Three days later Pakistan kept theirs going as we limped out in a tight, dramatic encounter at Eden Park.

Some teams will qualify for the quarters by winning their first four games, so what then? Trying to influence who you will play in the playoffs is fraught with danger. Do you keep pushing, or do you try to protect key players from injury? Only God knows who will be ripe, and who will be ready, for sudden death, come March 18.

Since that famous Pakistani win, enlarged, dynamic modern bats (which I don't have a problem with) versus vastly reduced boundaries (which I have a huge problem with) have turned the one day-game on its head. Double-hundreds and 30-ball tons are expected now. Also, field restrictions have unnecessarily changed for the worse. Actually, they are cruel.

Who would be a bowler in this form of the game, especially a spinner, now that two new balls are needed because of the inability to manufacture a white ball that can last? Only the best, the genuine specialist bowlers, will be able to compete, given the unfair advantage that batsmen so enjoy these days. The days of the part-timer are gone - the batsman who bowls a little, putting extreme pressure on team balance. Wouldn't it make more sense to offer one bowler per team a chance to bowl 12 overs?

Rangana Herath, Imran Tahir, Daniel Vettori, Shahid Afridi, and R Ashwin carry the hopes of an important art that could be in for a hiding over the next wee while. If that's the case, let's hope the lawmakers can find a true balance for the future of the ODI and get rid of these false solutions that have crept in over time.

Maybe by 2019, when the format will drop back to the top ten teams in the world, they will also reduce the number of overs and with it remove the contrived rules that are demeaning the hard work bowlers put into the sport. Forty overs with one ball, no extra Powerplays, field restrictions back to five out, all in an attempt to keep the game close to when it was at its best, 23 years ago, when cornered tigers were running amok and the balance between bat and ball was equal.

Martin Crowe, one of the leading batsmen of the late '80s and early '90s, played 77 Tests for New Zealand

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