February 18, 2015

A brand-boosting look at the World Cup

Featuring Afridi, India v Pakistan, DRS, Ireland and Finn's hat-trick

Welcome to the cricket World Cup, where there is true geographical equality © Getty Images

Last week this column dug deep into its sordid past while researching British f***ball and fan violence, the latter of which, contrary to grossly premature claims, has not disappeared, merely relocated from trains and terraces to alleyways and clubs. Keeping up this pretence, one can only surmise, has been a brilliant neo-Marxist cooperative venture among the broadcasters, the governing bodies to whom they give their billions, the clubs and players who benefit most from those billions, and the journalists who fear the loss of access and privileges should they dare report anything that might stem the flow of those billions.

Much the same can be said of rugby, an increasingly hazardous trade whose main British sponsor, the BBC, so courageously sweeps brain-threatening collisions under the nearest rug. In the five-minute studio post-mortem following England's victory over Italy on Saturday, a match held up for five minutes by a head injury to Mike Brown, at the end of a week that had brought unprecedentedly worrying concussion statistics, this scary episode was bypassed with indecent aplomb.

So, in the spirit of such unity, having spent much of the build-up challenging a whole slew of world records for whingeing, this column hereby vows to spend the entirety of the World Cup brand-boosting - i.e. taking bear-like care of the 1%-ers, brazenly accentuating the positives, cheering anything remotely good, fearlessly ignoring the bad, and prettifying the ugly.

Shahid Afridi: he points, you follow © AFP

It also vows to renounce the T-word (*est) for the duration and watch every recorded ball it can (rising for 3am kick-offs is not, regrettably, its idea of devotion). Nor, being a suspense junkie, will it log on to ESPNcricinfo until stumps are drawn. As a Pom, of course, this is nothing less than a patriotic obligation. Even when England wanted another 113 with nine wickets down at the MCG and a Six Nations rugby double-header due to kick off, this column is proud to state that it loyally saved the rest of the recording and dived back into those endlessly uncertain waters a few hours later. So what if only four balls remained to savour. Being addicted to possibility means being grateful for even the tiniest fixes.

The sad/mad
Starting thus might strike you as either a confession or else the quickest U-turn since Dennis Lillee allegedly withdrew an appeal after realising he'd forgotten to release the ball, but be patient.

The sad/mad news, according to the man himself, is that this is Shahid Afridi's farewell World Cup. Excuse the giggling scepticism, but what twaddle. Quite frankly, a World Cup without Boom Boom would be a lot less noisy, not to mention bereft of maverick spirit and bite. Hell, he's only 34. Nobody can match his five ODI innings of 25-plus at a strike rate of 250-plus, nor his combination of one six-for, one seven-for, nearly 400 wickets and nearly 8000 runs. And he can still break a curfew with the best of them.

The drop in the number of sixes at the World Cup is welcomed by those who have the slightest sympathy for bowlers in limited-overs cricket © Getty Images

That he should have done so on the eve of that inconsequential contretemps with India only heightened one's awe at such a Zen master of incorrigibility. How can you not adore someone with such an exquisite sense of proportion? This presumably explains why Rashid Latif, Pakistan's chief selector not all that many regimes ago, asserted that this young team "must" be led by "an aggressive player like Shahid for at least a year". Given that the world has yet to see a cricketer half as aggressive, this would appear to leave the current selectors with nowhere to turn.

The ad
"What, a whole day?" moans a baffled dachshund in a Sky Sports promo, before flopping back on the sofa with accomplished KP-ocity (for those late to the party, this denotes severe lack of interest). Presumably, they picked a German dog because no British one would be so oblivious to cricket's wonders. Anyway, nobody, nobody, does self-deprecating irony better than us Brits.

The good
Where else on earth, right now, can India play something other than war games with Pakistan? Or New Zealand expect to beat England at something not involving scrums, lineouts or goblins? Or Australia take on the indomitable might of Afghanistan, fiery hookers of US, USSR and even British bouncers - and with optimism at that?

Virat Kohli scored his fourth hundred in five internationals in Adelaide, against Pakistan © Getty Images

We Poms have already had our moments to cherish for almost evermore: Steve Shark-Finn Soup selflessly taking the least joyous hat-trick of all time, ever, to rob Australia of three precious runs, minimum; Stuart Broadly-Speaking taking just two balls to exterminate that dastardly duo, Dr Shane Watson and David Warner-Fight; Joe Root-Toot-Toot's running, plunging catch on the straight boundary to confound Maxwell's Silver Hammer. Titter all you like, you run gluttons, but mark this: it's the bowlers and fielders who will decide where all the marbles go. Naturally, this column is not proposing that Queen Elizabeth's bowlers and fielders will do the deciding, but give it time, hope and just enough rope.

The better
All hail the return of Mr DRS to Australian soil. How the heart soars at the renewed near-omnipresence of this semi-masterly dispenser of justice, this sometime saviour of umpires, this dissent-arrester. What about a ranking system? Imagine the fun to be had mocking the unconvincing and damning the chancers. Mind you, having been deprived of a looming maiden ODI ton by official ignorance, Little Jimmy Osmond-Taylor can hardly be blamed for lamenting Mr DRS' shortcomings on the human touch front. If only he'd been able to express what was surely in his heart: "Oy! What about Appendix 6, Article 3.6a, you dolts?"

Less excusably, George Bailey squandered his allocation trying to dispose of Little Jimmy when England were six down needing 228 more at nearly ten an over, which left a slightly nauseous aftertaste. Besides, what's the use of psychological warfare when there's virtually no prospect whatsoever of meeting the same bunch again for the best part of five months?

One top-notch idea, however belated, was to drag the boundary rope back, defying all that kicking and screaming from the Society for the Perpetuation of Totalitarian Batsmanship. A paltry 14 sixes in the first three games between the eight most plausible contenders is assuredly a stat to delight the over-55s. Contrast that with the last ODI series in India, where the hosts and Sri Lanka pummelled 55 in five games. Even if only one shot is devalued by 50%, one top-edged six denied or one catch unpocketed by a chap toting a beer in his other hand, this planet would still be poised to reclaim its status as the galaxy's fairest.

Hamilton in Hamilton: Masakadza wiped the smile off the face of the world's best bowler © Getty Images

The bold
Hamilton Masakadza strolls down the track to hoist Dale Steyn over wide long-off. One trusts Steyn's response - rueful, admiring, faintly dizzy and utterly, gloriously impotent - was photographed by the Batsmen's Union and is texted to members whenever they are due to face him.

The deftly, brutally beautiful
Two words: Virat and Kohli. Okay, seven more: "The new Ricky Ponting - or merely God?"

The O'Magical
Not so much Ireland duffing up the Windies (deciding who to back, for a North London hippy, proved completely impossible) but the weighty contribution by the county connection. Joyce, Stirling and O'Brien: the breakaway ad agency should Roger ditch Don and Pete in the impending final series of Mad Men? These ears hear only hymns to Kent, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Sussex and Middlesex, finishing schools extraordinaire.

The best
This column has twice reported World Cups from beyond its armchair, in Britain in 1999 and in Africa four years later. Both were moderately enjoyable, with the interminable longeurs and grotesque one-siders alleviated by some spellbinding drama - and never more so than when that Edgbaston semi-final abruptly transformed Lance the Zulu Warrior into Lance Without A Klusener. What made the neck hairs stand to attention, though, were the flags, the chants and, in 2003, the warm, smiling efficiency of African volunteers eager to present the Rainbow Nation in its brightest, kindest, most equitable colours.

At the World Cup, you'll see plenty of nationalism, but mostly of a celebratory kind © AFP

Nationalism is not this column's bag, but sport offers an excuse to indulge in such an antisocial activity. Provided the total number of bridges built is at least 500% greater than the sum of bones broken and lips fattened, World Cups especially can be a deeply nourishing experience. Grudgingly appreciating the marginally improving skill or dumb luck of the opposition; learning each other's swear words; swapping ripping yarns and ribald tales; buying rounds of beers or teas; exchanging email addresses: all staging posts on the road to enduring friendship.

World Cups and their ilk come thick and fast these days. This year also boasts the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Beijing, the World Ice Hockey Championships in the Czech Republic and the rugby World Cup in Blighty. Even if we threw in those destined for forthcoming years - the FIFA World Cup, the World Baseball Classic and the basketball World Cup - the cricket model would still stand proud and alone. (This column requests forgiveness for omitting the Olympics, but stands robustly behind its refusal to take seriously any sporting fiesta that takes wrestling seriously, let alone dressage and hammer-throwing.)

Only here, for all the tournament's moderately negligible flaws and quasi-misdemeanours, is there true geographical equality. Only here do Africa, Asia, Oceania, Europe and the Americas all have at least a small-to-medium-sized chance of prevailing. Only here, glory be, can gross domestic product, balance of payments and average wages be an irrelevance for so many continents and races. Only here can Indians and Pakistanis take turns to out-roar each other without raising an eyebrow in anger.

Never mind the quality - feel the solidarity.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton. His book Floodlights and Touchlines: A History of Spectator Sport is out now