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There were some good, uplifting aspects to the sixth cricket World Cup, not least the style and smiles of its unsuspected winners, Sri Lanka, but overall this was not a tournament to linger fondly in the memory. Wounded by events beyond its control even before its opening, the competition proceeded to frustrate and bewilder through an interminable and largely irrelevant saga of group games in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka before hastening frantically through its knockout games in little more than a week.
The event was poorly conceived in its format and its logistics and suffered throughout from the threat - and ultimately the reality - of crowd disorder. The abandonment of the semi-final at Eden Gardens, Calcutta, following bottle-throwing and fire-lighting on the terraces, was a shameful reflection on standards of sportsmanship in an area until recently renowned for its appreciation of all things good in the game of cricket.
Perhaps, however, we should not be too harsh on the individuals responsible for the riot in Calcutta. They were merely responding to the seductions created for them by the promoters of the Wills World Cup, an event that plainly, disastrously, put money-making above all the fundamentals of organising a global sporting competition. As the glamorising of the Indian and Pakistani cricketers reached new and absurd heights, so too did the unshakeable belief of the masses in their invincibility. Defeat, of the kind that came to India that night in Calcutta, was popularly unimaginable, with consequences for which many must share the blame.
It was all markedly at odds with the 1987 World Cup, also co-hosted by India and Pakistan and widely judged to be an organisational triumph. Players and observers alike enjoyed that competition far more than the 1996 event. Yet the paradox is that, when the accounts were complete, they showed a negligible profit. Within a decade, the profile of the game had altered substantially; so too, it transpired, had the methods and ambitions of those charged with running the tournament. Suddenly, it was deemed more important to register a company as supplier of official chewing gum - and take its money - than to pay proper attention to the welfare of the competing teams. Of course, it is possible to become too nannyish about professional sportsmen, who by and large lead a pretty pampered existence, but the wearisome travel schedules, illogical playing itineraries and inadequate practice facilities inflicted on most of the visiting teams would have caused a serious rebellion had this been a football championship.
In fact, such elementary flaws should have been dealt with at source, long before they became a millstone around the event. The reason they were not - the handing over by the International Cricket Council of all responsibility for the tournament to the World Cup committee, Pilcom - reflects poorly on all those responsible. What function does ICC perform if it is not to be a vigilant monitor of events like this? Cricket must never permit such complacency again.
ICC must also take the blame for the format. The expansion of the field to 12, from nine in 1992, was quite right. By embracing three of ICC's Associate Members, the non-Test countries, the World Cup was fulfilling its missionary aim (though whether the Associates, wooed by financial guarantees, had too much say in the venue is another serious matter for ICC to consider). The problem arose when the extra teams were accommodated by a complete change from the successful 1992 system, a round-robin producing four semi-finalists. Instead, the teams were divided into two groups of six, from which not four but eight sides would proceed to the knockout rounds. The effect of this, obvious in advance, was to reduce virtually a month of cricket to the status of little more than practice games: duly, almost inevitably, the three Associate nations and the junior Test-playing team, Zimbabwe, were eliminated.
All this could have been avoided, and a genuinely competitive group programme installed, by discarding the idea of quarter-finals and going straight to a last four. Presumably, the attraction of four big crowds, four big television games, was too great, but this was a decision taken on flawed grounds. The people were not all fooled; the group games in Pakistan, particularly, drew very small crowds.
The logistical chaos of the competition stemmed largely from the decision, laudable in theory but utterly unrealistic, to spread the tournament to virtually every corner of the vast country of India. The 17 games scheduled for the country were all staged in different cities and insufficient attention had been paid to the practicalities of moving teams (let alone television crews and media people) between games. Travel in India is problematical at best; a few specific alterations were made to airline schedules to oblige the competition organisers but nowhere near enough to surmount the problem, the size of which became clear during the first, eventful weekend. The teams were all due to gather in Calcutta for a variety of briefing meetings before the much-vaunted opening ceremony, a celebration of technology for which the organisers had outlaid considerable capital.
As it transpired, however, the weekend was dominated by the issue of two teams, Australia and West Indies, adamantly refusing to play their scheduled group games in Colombo. The bomb blast in the city, a fortnight earlier, was the clinching factor, but Australia's players were already uncomfortable about visiting Sri Lanka, with whom they had just played an acrimonious Test series. In truth, they were reluctant to participate in the Cup at all, the backwash of their bribery allegations against Salim Malik having brought threats of an unpleasant nature from a number of fanatics around Pakistan. West Indies had far less reason for prudence on the Colombo issue, but the condemnatory tone of the organisers against the two defectors gave the episode an unwarranted tone, intensified by a press conference that touched heights of incoherent rancour. It was even suggested that Australia and West Indies were indulging in a vendetta against the Third World, until it was gently pointed out, by ICC's chairman, Sir Clyde Walcott, that the Caribbean forms part of the Third World.
Positions being entrenched, the matches were forfeited, though it was a commentary on the cosiness of the format that Australia and West Indies could make such a sacrifice without seriously endangering their progress to the business end of the tournament. Sri Lanka were both winners and losers - winners because they received four points, and a comfortable passage to the last eight, without playing, but losers because their lovely island was deprived of its two biggest matches at a time when the public was most in need of rousing diversions. For them, however, the grandest of compensations awaited.
The opening ceremony was attended by more than 100,000 people, most of whom must have left wondering what on earth they had been watching. The laser show malfunctioned, the compère was embarrassing and the grand launch was a complete flop - so much so that there were subsequent calls at Calcuttan government level for the arrest of the Pilcom convenor, Jagmohan Dalmiya, on a charge of wasting public money.
At 4 a.m. the following morning, four teams gathered blearily in the lobby of Calcutta's Oberoi hotel. They were all slated for the 6 a.m. flight to Delhi (India's internal flights tend to run before dawn and after dusk), whereafter they were required to wait many hours before connecting to flights for their various first-game destinations. Had no one thought of organising a charter flight at a civilised hour? Apparently not.
Given this, the choice of the unlovely city of Ahmedabad, and the teams of England and New Zealand, for the opening game of the tournament, should perhaps not seem curious. It was, however, a deflating start, and not just for England, whose obsolete one-day tactics and lack of specific preparation for the only limited-overs event that matters were exposed from the beginning. England were destined to win only two games in the competition, both against non-league opposition, and one of those, against Holland, by an unflatteringly narrow margin. Their players had come to the event tired and unfocused, which was not entirely their fault, but the need for a progressive team manager to replace Raymond Illingworth became ever clearer as their ill-fated campaign continued. England once dictated the terms in one-day cricket; unnoticed by them, other countries have caught up and left them behind, developing new and innovative ways of overcoming the essentially negative restrictions of the overs game.
The use of pinch-hitters was one such method, much discussed and granted more significance than it merited, but it was certainly the case that the successful teams no longer looked to accrue the majority of their runs in the closing overs of their innings. Instead of settling for 60 or 70 runs from the initial 15 overs, when fielding restrictions applied, teams were now looking to pass the 100 mark. On the blissful batting pitches encountered here, it was seldom impossible. Sri Lanka, through their fearless openers, Sanath Jayasuriya - later to be named the Most Valued Player of the Tournament - and Romesh Kaluwitharana, were the trendsetters and, as the outcome proved, nobody did it better. Jayasuriya's assault on England's bowling in the quarter-final at Faisalabad was authentic, aggressive batting without insult to the coaching manual.
There were some memorable images from the over-long group stages. Mark Taylor's sportsmanship, in refusing to claim a slip catch at a pivotal stage against West Indies, was one; the imperious batting of Mark Waugh and Sachin Tendulkar provided more. But the majority involved the minnow nations. The best of them was the catch by Kenya's portly, bespectacled and none-too-nimble wicket-keeper, Tariq Iqbal, to dismiss Brian Lara. That it led to a Kenyan victory by 73 runs was part of the romance; here was the greatest upset the World Cup has known and, perhaps, a salutary lesson to a West Indies team that had become surly and unattractive. Kenya played their cricket as the West Indians once loved to do, without inhibition; defeat paradoxically restored pride to West Indies. They not only rallied to reach the last eight - roused by 93 not out from their beleaguered captain, Richie Richardson, against Australia - but, there, beat the team that had hitherto looked the slickest in the event, South Africa.
The two main host nations predictably reached the quarter-finals but it was not in the preferred script that they should meet each other so soon. Bangalore had the dubious honour of staging the game and this beautiful, bustling city has never known such an event. The fact that India won it, before an intensely partisan crowd, perhaps averted the kind of disgraceful scenes witnessed four days later in Calcutta, where Sri Lanka utterly outplayed the Indians. In the other semi-final, Australia recovered from an apparently hopeless position to beat West Indies, whose collective nerve crumbled.
Thus was created a meeting, in the final, between two teams who were prevented by politics and expediency from playing each other earlier. Sri Lanka's victory was to the great approval and acclaim of much of the cricketing world. It was also a result that, to some degree, rescued this World Cup from an abiding image of bungling mediocrity.
The tournament achieved one aim in increasing the profile of cricket, through television coverage on an impressive but largely uncritical scale, and undoubtedly it satisfied the organisers in the amount of money accrued. But the impression was that the cricket was secondary to the commercialism. Even in a game newly awakened to its financial opportunities, that cannot be right.
Match reports for
5th Match: Sri Lanka v Australia at Colombo (RPS), Feb 17, 1996
15th Match: Sri Lanka v West Indies at Colombo (RPS), Feb 25, 1996
30th Match: Pakistan v New Zealand at Lahore, Mar 6, 1996