World Cup No. 9: the big story February 7, 2015

The year the World Cup left us cold

Osman Samiuddin
The tournament in the West Indies ought to have been among the most joyous, but it was marked by a general cheerlessness, and with the death of Bob Woolmer, outright dismay

Dimly fades the Cup: the two captains discuss the light rules at the dingy end of the final © Getty Images

World Cups should be momentous, like wars or American elections, with the potential to change the world around them. In reality they are temporal events. They roll around every four years, somebody wins, the rest lose, then they are gone and normal service resumes until they come round again. It is precisely as extraordinary as a wheel. If we're lucky, they're like sparklers, beautiful till they last but irrelevant beyond their existence. They often make for good memories, but idle ones and not of particular consequence.

Or most of them anyway. Two World Cups have arguably managed to outlast their existence and left very real imprints on the game around them. Both involved India as the major actor, though in opposing poses. In 1983, a jubilant, triumphant India provided cricket with its lightbulb moment: Hey guys, look! A mass, captive audience waiting to be exploited! Whoa! That World Cup changed the game because with India's win, people understood and acted upon the potential of the Indian market, of short-format cricket and the inextricability between the two.

The other was the 2007 World Cup and here it was the ingloriousness of an early Indian exit that brought cricket another, more depressing, eureka. In a way it took the implications of 1983 to their logical conclusion. Here cricket understood it had become not so much a slave to India's economy as a figment of the Indian imagination; the minute India stopped being tickled by it, the sport would disappear in a puff of smoke. (It hardly matters whether this fear is founded or not. The game would be poorer financially and spiritually no doubt, but dead? It is impossible to know.)

Strictly speaking it wasn't the World Cup that foretold this new reality but the 2006 Champions Trophy, held in India the previous October. Despite Australia's customary, even off-putting dominance, the tournament wasn't bad, played out on wonderful, lively pitches; perhaps the last time a major one-day event had such bounty for fast bowlers. But it is remembered equally for the many empty seats in the stadiums for matches that didn't involve India - empty stadiums in what was until then presumed to be cricket's greatest fanboy of a country.

Around that time the BCCI was refusing to sign a Members Participatory Agreement with the ICC because it felt it was getting stiffed out of its due share (sound familiar?). Lalit Modi had bravado-ed his way into cricket administration like an army of Travoltas on a Saturday night. Immediately he picked a fight with the ICC, audaciously offering to buy TV rights for ICC events.

As impressive as Australia's excellence was, it was also cold and, in a way, joyless. This was the other end of greatness, where there was so much of it, it began to breed ennui

Those days, and the World Cup, were, in fact, the first stirrings of the rationale that was formalised last year in the Big Three. These are the words of Ashok Malik in an edition of the late great Cricinfo Magazine: "As such, from the old 'black versus white' war zone, the ICC is moving towards a cartelisation of cricket's 'mature markets' - India, Australia and England." It was published in March 2006, nearly eight years before the Big Three happened on paper.

India's - and to a lesser extent Pakistan's - exits put in place the modern, cold equations on which cricket is run. Nobody complained in 2003 when Kenya made it to the semi-finals. Mostly the feat was romanticised, as would be any good underdog story. But when Ireland and Bangladesh made it past the first round in 2007, the feel-good was drowned out in the dread of the economic consequence. Replacing India-Pakistan with Bangladesh-Ireland? Let's mourn, not celebrate. The priorities were clear. Weaker teams like Bangladesh had to be tolerated and Associates like Ireland suppressed. In other words, cricket needn't expand. It was better, in fact, to contract. The moment carried the harsh bitterness of those teenage years when you're told to stop dreaming of being a musician or a historian and get started on that medical degree or MBA.

A basic fracture occurred at the tournament, between those who ran the game and those who followed and loved it. This was the third World Cup organised and run entirely by the ICC, and probably the most identikit tournament yet, patched up in the manner cricket thought global sports events are run. It felt like we were dialling into the call centre of all World Cups and then being put on hold interminably. It was that long too. Somehow by imposing its own faceless identity, the ICC had squeezed the life and soul out of one of cricket's funnest, most soulful destinations. Remember the banning of musical instruments inside stadiums? Even as intrinsically joyous an act as the hitting of six sixes in one over, as Herschelle Gibbs managed, was supremely underwhelming.

The cricket felt bogged down by this, or at least the cricket played by most sides other than Australia and Sri Lanka. As impressive as Australia's excellence was, it was also cold and, in a way, joyless. This was the other end of greatness, where there was so much of it, it began to breed ennui. Would they ever stop winning? Would they ever stop producing superman players? They would, and they had - before the tournament they had been whitewashed in New Zealand - but just at that point it felt like it would never stop.

Sri Lanka were enjoyable in their own right, not just for the uplifting contrast they provided to their wheezing continental neighbours. It was depressing that they were no match for Australia, but Mahela Jayawardene's semi-final hundred and Lasith Malinga's four in four balls provided the tournament with two of its three most electric passages (Adam Gilchrist's hundred in the final was the other, though Andrew Flintoff's "Fredalo" must run it close.)

Bob Woolmer's death was random and upsetting - all the more for the unknowns surrounding it © AFP

Everywhere you looked, though, there was an incurable gloom. How else to describe the mid-tournament retirement of Brian Lara? For all his complications, Lara was still a representative of an age that was definitively not the one that the tournament stood for. This could just be old-man nostalgia but though he played right through the match-fixing years, there was something lighter and more entertaining about the time Lara played in. Maybe it was just in the way he played. He remains, if nothing else, the last of the great West Indian cricketers (although, Shiv).

Even if everything had gone right, if the tournament had birthed a million Laras, if India and Pakistan had reached the final, it would still be unable to dissociate itself from the death of Bob Woolmer. That tragedy alone sank the tournament. Even now, eight years on, it remains impossible to internalise the enormity of his passing, and this is written by someone who was no more than a mildly informed acquaintance of the man. For the many who knew him intimately, what torment. Still the questions are as pressing as they were that early Karachi morning, when, with the country already in some tumult (the endgame of Pervez Musharraf's presidency had begun), a member of the Pakistan management screeched down the phone that Woolmer was gone, and probably murdered. It was a shitstorm of a period for Pakistan.

How could it be that he just died? That one day he had been at the receiving end of a great World Cup shock and then that evening he was no more? A high-profile coach of a major side, on cricket's biggest stage, a man so consumed by the game. How could it be that such a hash was made of the cause of his death? That it still remains unknown? It was disturbing that so many were able to see the approximate moment of Phillip Hughes' death. In its own way, the unseen death of Woolmer was equally disturbing and random. Some days it still feels as if something died not only within Pakistan's cricket but in the sport itself that day. The lack of closure remains the still-open wound of that tournament.

Soon after the final ended in farce, the ICC's then chief executive, Malcolm Speed, appeared at a press conference alongside the current chief executive, David Richardson. Speed apologised for the ending, in which match officials erroneously insisted the final be played in near darkness, when the rules stated the match was done, dusted and Australia's.

As Speed apologised, Andrew Miller, the UK editor of this website at the time, noted the ICC hoarding behind him coming unstuck and almost striking him on the head. It wasn't so much a clownish operational mishap - albeit a fitting way to end the tournament - as a portent for the future of the organisation and the game.

Osman Samiuddin is a sportswriter at the National and the author of The Unquiet Ones: A History of Pakistan Cricket

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ADARSH on February 8, 2015, 21:19 GMT

    "when Ireland and Bangladesh made it past the first round in 2007, the feel-good was drowned out in the dread of the economic consequence. Replacing India-Pakistan with Bangladesh-Ireland? Let's mourn, not celebrate. The priorities were clear. Weaker teams like Bangladesh had to be tolerated and Associates like Ireland suppressed. In other words, cricket needn't expand. It was better, in fact, to contract"

    Indeed the best sentences in this article. Very well said. Its true that the fans of 2 biggest cricket fan nations wont celebrate in such a fashion. It was pathetic for Pakistan due to Bob's unfortunate death which still is an illusion to many.

    For India, 2007 Indian World Cup was a superior squad compared to 2011 squad. Sachin, Ganguly, Dravid, Sehwag, Yuvraj, Dhoni, Zaheer, Harbhajan- The players that people and experts name as the best India had and are the world Beaters. Yet what happened? We all Know!

  • Dummy4 on February 8, 2015, 18:11 GMT

    i was a student in jamaica for that world cup.... studying a medical degree funny enough... i ran away from classes to be there for the opening game. vs pak. and then i rounded up all my buddies as we were there for the game vs ireland.. i even went to the tied game between zim and ireland....

    .... is it that in the fifa world cup... teams are taught to believe in themselves... that they made it that far... they should expect to spring a surprise?

    is it a matter that cricket associates don't share that same train of thought.... we're just here for numbers? ...

    i'm a purist.... but these are questions that i expect the T20 experiment to answer. in T20... all teams have a chance.. given the nature of the beast. (which is why i dislike it.... where is the skill? its either swing and hit or swing and miss.... and a whole lot of luck determines which swing you get.... however i do respect the bowlers... and the TREMENDOUS skill involved there.)

  • Kevin on February 8, 2015, 13:39 GMT

    Certainly seems where cricket isn't global enough. In the football world cup if Spain, Germany, Argentina & Brazil all didn't make the semi finals there are plenty of other sides to fill the void and captivate the audience (who knows even England might be in it!). Crickets problem does seem to be in that.

  • Dummy4 on February 8, 2015, 12:10 GMT

    WC 2007 was a disaster not just due to Ind Pak exit in group stage. there were so many meaningless games played in front of empty stadiums. even the teams look bored. Australia was miles ahead of other teams which made cricket look lame. For any tournament to be successful games should be competitive.

  • Dummy4 on February 8, 2015, 7:51 GMT

    Yep still remember the 2007 world cup and not very fondly Im afraid.Pakistan left in the group stages of the 2003 cup as well but that edition of the tournament was still a great watch right till the end.The 2007 cup was a disaster.Probably the worst world cup ever,definitely the worst since 1992.There was no excitement no high emotions and the less said about the end the better I think.The 2011 cup was a very good comeback of the tournament and Im sure the 2015 cup is going to be an extremely good one as well.Aus/NZ are great places to play cricket,very good grounds and good sports loving audience.Looking forward to a great cup,May the best team win.

  • Mihir on February 8, 2015, 4:49 GMT

    I think it was good format , Just cause of India Pakistan Exit , World Cup lost its significance... Just like Author says when Kenya reached Semi's no one complained ...in 2003 India was playing Better cricket other than Aussies.. If Same Format would have continued then in 2011 we don't know if Ireland England in same group would have been Exit for England. Atleast we would have seen it like world Event ..6 Associates playing only 3 games...So less meaning less matches which ICC is worried about. Rather than 2015 World Cup where Associates play 6 Games . Super 8's would have been entertaining if India Pakistan England Australia makes it.. ICC could have play 2 games in one day for Super 8's one Day Game one Day Nighter

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