The year the World Cup left us cold
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.
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.)
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