Once upon a time there was a World Cup in the neighbourhood. Actually "once upon" was only 15 years ago, when there was a neighbourhood, of the kind that is unrecognisable today.
The World Cup turns up in the sport's most populous, tempestuous, and now richest, region, as South Asia's mild winter begins to depart. It returns to a continent that, for the most part, may look to the outsider as it did in 1996. It continues to pulse with strife and whirl around with the certainty of the unforseeable. What is actually coming back to Asia is a very different game, which will take place in an environment transformed.
Between 1996 and 2011 cricket has gone through its own climate change - one that has spread through the game, the players, their support cast, and been absorbed by its very ecosystem. A climate change is first noticed when, after a sizeable gap in time, we realise suddenly that the weather feels odd around us, that the seasons are neither when they used to be nor what they used to be. The World Cup is still a 50-overs-a-side competition, it is coloured clothes and white balls and black sightscreens, but something at an inherent level has shifted. The 2011 World Cup could be the event that demonstrates that shift.
Four countries, four stories
In the last 15 years the subcontinent's cricket has, mostly walked confidently. The Sri Lankans will always look at the 1996 Cup as the year that marked the time they could stand tall in the short game. In the next three Cups they made a semi-final and a final, a record better than any of their neighbours. Sri Lanka are also ahead of them in terms of current win-loss record and in performances at big events like the Champions Trophy and the World Cup. The country has put out two new venues for the World Cup, one of which is Pallekelle. The second, thanks to its president, intends to be a whole new port town and international charter-flight destination, built off a rural stretch of seaside, Hambantota. Sri Lanka has moved ahead from 1996.
Bangladesh's entry into the World Cup was only as recently as 1999, and in their third attempt, in 2007, they beat India and South Africa. In July 2009 there was an away series win against West Indies, and in 2010 they recorded their first-ever win over England and beat New Zealand 4-0 at home. Whatever else it may turn out to be, Bangladesh's first World Cup at home will be a coming-out party of a cricketing country that now believes.
It is, of course, India that has grown the quickest from 1996. Its cricket team in this time shook off match-fixing and took giant strides. It upset the old order and entertained audiences. At another level, however, the nation that first cleared its throat and then demanded to be heard by the Anglocentric powers, has now turned into the game's loudest bully, ready to flex its muscle and flaunt its wealth. India now remodels and control cricket's economy, and in the new order it chooses to play autocrat, not leader. On the balance sheet they would call that a 15-year profit.
Of the four countries it is Pakistan that can look at the interlude between World Cups with a heart turned to stone. In this period its cricket has in turns been vandalised, scandalised and traumatised. Every misfortune that could be brought or struck upon has been. Its team has oscillated between being a wonderment and a wreck, its future requiring both plan and prayer. In 2003 they were called the Brazil of cricket, but now even the witty lines about the "volatile Asians" have dried up. Even as Pakistan's talent supply continues to surface, its fabric wears out year after year. It is why the event that ended in Lahore the last time will begin for Pakistan in Sri Lanka.
Talk about subcontinental drift.
1996: community and sharing
Anyone over the age of 20 in South Asia should remember 1996, because it was the neighbourhood's event. Called the Wills World Cup, it travelled everywhere, uncaring about the fatigue and dread of teams or TV crews. To 26 cities in three countries. Patna and Peshawar, Kandy and Kanpur.
To the scorn of the sport's upper classes and the dismay of the pundits, it was the first cricket World Cup with double-digit participation: 12 nations, not eight or nine as had been let in until then.
A special hotline was set up between two offices in Karachi and Calcutta, to ensure a direct hook-up between argumentative neighbours India and Pakistan. It may have been all the better to have an argument with but actually it meant to bypass unpredictable telecommunication lines so neither middlemen nor pigeon post could become alternative means of communication.
"Between 1996 and 2011 cricket has gone through its own climate change - one that has spread through the game, the players, their support cast, and been absorbed by its very ecosystem"
Three weeks before the tournament began, when an LTTE attack on the Colombo business district drove away Australians and West Indians, and threatened to sink Sri Lanka's first-ever World Cup, the neighbourhood stood united. Two days before the tournament, a combined team of Indians and Pakistanis travelled to Colombo as the Asian XI. They played a solidarity match against Sri Lanka at the Premadasa Stadium. Since it was too late for a new uniform for the two-nation Asian XI (and neither would want to wear each other's colours), a simple solution was found: the players wore white. The sightscreen, painted black for the ODI against Australia that would never happen, was given a rushed early-morning whitewash. Sure, everything was patched together in a hurry - the symbolism, the teams, the game - but it was done. On a working day 10,000 turned up to watch.
Fifteen years ago the neighbourhood pulled together instinctively. Today it doesn't look the same. It certainly doesn't act the same. Linkages once made of a shared locality, a similar, sometimes shared, culture, are now made mostly by international bank transfers. Between then and now the game has been transformed technically, statistically, economically and politically. The equations between nations have also been altered, the power structures completely restructured.
Sure, the 1996 World Cup was far from innocent amateurism and pristine organisation. Its flaws went deep, well beyond its comically tacky opening ceremony, where the laser show bombed as a Hooghly breeze blew some screens off their moorings, and ushers and performers swanned around in civvies because their costumes were stuck in traffic. Deals done around the Cup led to court cases and a bitter falling out between Jagmohan Dalmiya and IS Bindra, once allies who had changed the finances of Indian cricket.
Yet to its hosts the 1996 World Cup meant something distinct. It was about community and a sharing - of history, status and a thirst for validation. At that time Asia was a cheeky arriviste in cricket, pushing at the gates. The Grace Gates, if you like, considering the ICC was still headquartered in London. Led by the Indians, Asia banded together and worked in a pack. In War Minus The Shooting, a carefully detailed and riotously vibrant account of the 1996 World Cup, Mike Marqusee draws out the region's common thread. The Cup, he writes, was "a global television spectacle, which all three nations hoped would boost their standing in the eyes of the world... especially in the eyes of financiers and investors... all three were opening their economies... building consumer sub-cultures in the midst of mass poverty... all three were racked with ethnic intolerance and in all three the question of national identity was hotly contested".
Yes, the 2011 event will be welcomed by Asia with all its enthusiasm and energy. It has a lovely logo, a goofily named mascot (Stumpy? Distant cousin of Dumpy / Grumpy?), it has a new co-host nation. Between the two events, 2011 could well boast that it is (to steal a pop album title) Bigger, Better, Faster, More.
Like with most advertising the full truth is in the small print. Marqusee's "all three" of 1996 now stand separated. In the scheme of things, the fourth host of the 2011 World Cup, Bangladesh, is now treated by its co-host and closest cricketing neighbour as a fringe player on the field and in the boardroom. The only country never to have hosted Bangladesh in a Test series is India. Other than ICC events, the last time the Indians invited them to anything was a 1998 tri-nation series. Should Bangladesh need some solidarity today, it is unlikely a joint India-Pakistani-Sri Lankan squad would be jetted off to provide solace. Even if the romantic idea arose, the teams' support staff would not stand for it, two days before the opening game. The "three hosts" of 2011 are, of course, an incomplete entity. As much as the idea might anger those slaving over the final logistics, the event is covered by a lopsided atlas, which has a missing part. Independent of the reasons that have led us down this path, cricket in the here and now, without Pakistan as one of the subcontinent's hosts is somewhat bereft.
Ehsan Mani, one of those involved in the PILCOM (Pakistan India Lanka Committee) for the 1996 World Cup, says he feels a "sadness" that Pakistan is not a part of what he calls a "festival of cricket". Mani was the ICC chief who had to calm the angry bid rivals, Australia-New Zealand, in March 2006 when the Asians were late in submitting their bid compliance documents for the 2011 Cup, asking for more time. Eventually the ICC granted the extension. It was the promise of India and Pakistan's participation in South Africa's 2007 World Twenty20 event that helped them win the 2011 bid with a 7-3 vote.
Mani says, "Asia will only remain remain strong if they stay together in the long term." In the short term, the events of Lahore on March 3, 2009 have scattered the subcontinent. "First there was the failure of the Pakistan board to stick to the protocol and then to try to blame someone else," Mani says. "We live in a dangerous world. What changed after Lahore was the public perception about cricket tours in Pakistan... " In just over a month Pakistan lost more than just the rights to stage the World Cup, it lost its home matches, its moorings. The spot-fixing controversy has only made it more of a pariah, its team now loaded with the double burden of displaying ability and proving intergrity every time it plays.
Money talks, money grows
The biggest tectonic shift in the World Cup has been to do with finances, brought by their move eastward. Asia's last two World Cups worked on contradictory cash registers. The 1996 Cup, officially titled the Wills World Cup after a cigarette brand (like its 1992 Benson & Hedges predecessor) was the last time any sponsor would earn the title rights to cricket's premier tournament. Title sponsors ITC paid approxmiately US$13m (about Rs 56 crores) and the television sponsorship went for over $10m (around Rs 45 crores). At the time those figures were the great leap forward for the finances on offer in the game - or rather, on offer when India was in the mix.
Nineteen ninety-six was the last "sponsor's World Cup" - every event till then and including 1996 had offered dissimilar winner's trophies and been conducted with varying marketing plans, financial ambitions, and a share of the profits to the ICC. The 1999 event was run by the ECB and profits were shared with the ICC based on a formula worked out in what then came to be called the "Mani Paper".
At one time a host nation's four-yearly pot of gold, the event was fully owned by the ICC in 2003, even though the now well-recognised 11kg, silver-gold trophy was instituted after 1996. The Cup is now the ruling body's biggest money-spinning event. Its first "property", however, was the 1999 ICC Knock-Out, now known as the Champions Trophy.
Following the 1999 World Cup, the ICC sold a package of global rights for the World Cup and the Champions Trophy to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp-owned Global Cricket Corporation for $550m for a seven-year period until 2007. The latest bundle of rights for ICC events were won by ESPNStar Sports for $1.1b, with sponsorship earnings rising to $400m from the $50m earned by the ICC in 1996.
Every World Cup will now look pretty similar in terms of signage and merchandising, the complicated business of "ambush marketing" breathing down every host's neck. The ICC says its millions are now used to develop the game outside the 10 Test-playing nations. From under 50 in 1996, the ICC has a total of 105 member nations. Yet the ICC intends to have the 2015 World Cup feature only 10 nations. Mani is not amused: "If you don't support countries that are struggling, they will go backwards. At one time two-three countries are always struggling, financially, in terms of resources in regard to the game. You can't run a viable international world sport with only three or four countries playing it."
Like 1996, maybe 2011 will also carry with it a message about Asia as well as a message to the neighbourhood. That the after-effects of climate change are felt by everyone, even gated communities.