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Twenty years ago - no more - England's opening batsmen walked out to bat in the World Cup final. They were the 38-year-old Geoffrey Boycott and the 37-year-old Michael Brearley, conventional batsmen both: not even at a pinch could you have called them hitters. They proceeded to prove as much: in pursuit of a target of 287 to beat West Indies, they consumed 235 balls to score 121 runs between them.
England's opening pair were not alone, however, in erring on the side of the pedestrian and conventional in that 1979 World Cup. New Zealand's batting was opened by John Wright and Bruce Edgar, India's by Sunil Gavaskar - the same Gavaskar who had batted through 60 overs in the previous World Cup for 36 runs, albeit largely out of bloody-mindedness - and the studious Anshuman Gaekwad (slow and bespectacled batsmen are always studious).
One-day international cricket in those days was for Test players letting their often-greying hair down. England's wicket-keeper in the 1979 World Cup was Bob Taylor; the only player resembling a one-day specialist was Brian McKechnie - but then New Zealand were usually short of a full hand of Test players. Nobody did anything cunning like change the batting around (England could have opened in that final with Graham Gooch and Wayne Larkins, or Ian Botham and Derek Randall). It was still an age of innocence, cricketing and commercial, and perhaps more enjoyable for being so.
Now the World Cup is a strapping young man of 24 years, who has grown and grown until he is able to look the World Cups of other sports in the eye. Every feature of cricket's World Cup has expanded enormously since those first two modest tournaments in England in the 1970s. They both consisted of 15 games played by eight teams over 15 days. In 1983, again in England, there were 27 games over 17 days. In 1987, there were still 27 matches played by eight countries, but this time they were spread over the length and breadth of India and Pakistan, regardless of the travelling hardships for the players, and the tournament took five weeks to stage.
In Australia in 1992, 39 matches were played by nine countries in the best format conceived to date, as every country played the others once. In 1996, back in the subcontinent, the number of competitors expanded to 12 as three non-Test sides were included, and Kenya produced the biggest giant-killing act of all when they defeated a disunited West Indian team. This time there will be 42 matches, the most yet, with six teams going through, and being whittled down to four via a complex system called the Super Six, to determine the semi-finalists.
Crowds have expanded too, from 158,000 to an expected 500,000 for this summer's event in England, and untold millions for the two Cups staged in the subcontinent. Profits too have grown a little, from £150,000 in the original competition to millions of rupees which were again untold in the last World Cup, as the accounts were not subjected to external auditing. The International Cricket Council has decided never to repeat that mistake, and will wisely oversee this and all future World Cups.
If the entrepreneurial horizons have expanded hugely, so too have those of the cricketers themselves, and particularly of batsmen. The first three tournaments were much of a muchness, all of them 60-over events on pitches where the ball did a bit. Even as late as 1983, England were opening with Chris Tavaré - in his dogged England mode, not his sometimes free county style. You built your innings as you would in any other match, kept wickets in hand for the slog, and only clubbed and clattered in the last few overs. A rate of four runs an over after 60 overs was pretty good, except if you were whopping the likes of Canada, East Africa or Sri Lanka (yes, the 1996 winners were non-Test tiddlers in the first two Cups). Only three totals above 250 were recorded in the 1979 tournament; unsurprisingly, England in the final failed to offer one of those instances.
Each of the next three Cups saw a significant step forward in batting. The 1987 competition was held on the grassless pitches of India and Pakistan. The fact that the innings had to be reduced to 50 overs, to allow for shorter hours of daylight than in England in midsummer, was soon forgotten; the number of totals above 250 was now up to 16. Batsmen cut out pedantic introductions in the first ten overs. West Indies and Viv Richards went further by hitting Sri Lanka for 360 for four and 181 respectively in their Karachi qualifier.
Seam bowlers had been safe from assault in England, unless you were as aggressive as Dennis Lillee and tried to bounce out Alvin Kallicharran, even though it was a limited-overs game (Kalli hit Lillee for 35 from ten balls in a 1975 qualifier). Now, in 1987, such canny exponents as Courtney Walsh and Derek Pringle were carted, especially at the end of a long hot session: the three breaks in leisurely England had been reduced to one between innings. Line and length were no longer enough. Change of pace was in, as exemplified by Steve Waugh, who rolled his wrist and fingers and frequently got that ball up in the blockhole. But spin too had a major say for the first time in the 1987 Cup. Whereas not one over of it was bowled in the 1975 final, seven of the nine most economical bowlers in the qualifying round of 1987 were spinners.
As the 1992 tournament was staged largely in Australia, the ACB introduced floodlit cricket, coloured clothes, white balls and the fielding restriction which had been a feature of their one-day internationals at home since World Series: only two fielders allowed outside the semi-circles in the first 15 overs, so that television viewers would be glued to their seats from the start. In the previous World Cup, Geoff Marsh and David Boon of victorious Australia had been the exemplars of one-day opening, running those quick singles: their coach Bobby Simpson had calculated that 90 per cent of internationals were won by the side which scored off the greater number of balls, never mind the boundaries. Soon that was a load of old helmet. England opened with Ian Botham, India with Kris Srikkanth, West Indies with Brian Lara, to cash in while the field was up, but none of them did so with such effect as Mark Greatbatch of New Zealand.
Nobody could legally bowl him a bouncer (the definition of what was too high and wide had been tightened up for the 1983 competition onwards), so he put his foot down the wicket and bounced the ball off the terracing of New Zealand's cricket-cum-rugby grounds. One-day batting could not be confused with the Test-match style of Boycott and Brearley any more. The vogue was to use a pinch-hitter to get that scoring-rate up and keep it up. The counter, especially in New Zealand where pitches were slow, was to take all the pace off the ball - as the Indians had done in 1983 - even to the extent of opening the bowling with Dipak Patel.
In 1995-96, Sri Lanka were playing in the one-day series in Australia when one of their regular openers, Roshan Mahanama, was injured (their other opener was called Sanath Jayasuriya). So the Sri Lankans' manager Duleep Mendis asked the coach Dav Whatmore what he thought about promoting the wicket-keeper Romesh Kaluwitharana, who had been batting down the order and getting caught in the deep. "I love it," replied Whatmore. Thus was born the Sri Lankan ploy of two pinch-hitters, except that Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana were not in any sense mere hitters; one already had a Test century against Australia, the other would get his within a few weeks. They were able to bat with greater freedom than specialist batsmen because they were all-rounders with more than one bow-string.
With five specialist batsmen to follow - Mahanama now served as insurance against any batting collapses at No. 7 - the Sri Lankans scored freely in the 1996 Cup, not only when they clattered Kenya for a record total of 398 but even when they made bad starts in the semi-final and final. Whatmore and his Australian vigour had already made Sri Lanka into the first accomplished all-round fielding side the subcontinent had produced (Asia had seen some wonderful specialists before, of course, but there was always someone less than zealous or reluctant to dive). Throw in four spinners who took the pace off the ball, and mature composure from the senior players, and the World Cup was deservedly Sri Lanka's. The Australian argument that they were handicapped by dew in the day/night final in Lahore does not bear much scrutiny, as they had underperformed with the bat in broad daylight.
This growth in run-scoring may cease in 1999 as the young man reaches his mid-twenties. The three previous World Cups in England were staged in June, but this one will begin on May 14. Specialist pace bowlers will be necessary to make full use of the conditions, and specialist top-order batsmen to withstand them. Everything else should keep on growing though, like the excellence of the fielding, and the sponsorship money, and the television revenues, and the media coverage, and the worldwide interest. It will be a mature man of the world who goes to South Africa in 2003.
Scyld Berry is cricket correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph.