The 1999 World Cup is a hard tournament for an Englishman to judge dispassionately. For the hosts it bore all the characteristics of a terrible family reunion, with the initial excitement that cricket was coming home after a 16-year hiatus soon giving way to acute embarrassment and a wistful sense of loss.
For the first eight years of its life the World Cup had been tied to England's apron strings in the form of three homespun tournaments. Now, however, after travelling the world throughout its formative years, it had grown to become, as Scyld Berry wrote in the build-up, a "strapping young man of 24" with a personality of its own, and values very distinct from those that its mother country had espoused all those years ago.
Three nuggets of mediocrity serve as bullet points, from an English point of view, for how out of touch with its tournament the host nation had become. The opening ceremony at Lord's barely evolved from the back of the envelope on which it had been scribbled, featuring fizzling fireworks and an inaudible speech from the prime minister, Tony Blair. The home team slumped to an ignominious group-stage exit, losing from an unloseable position against India at Edgbaston. And to cap it all off, the official World Cup song, "All Over the World" by Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame, didn't hit the shops until the day after England's elimination.
"There were some aspects of the tournament that could have been handled better," admits the former ICC president Ehsan Mani, who at the time was in charge of the board's financial committee.
But peel away the self-pity and a different picture emerges, one of a sport that was on the cusp of opportunity and was probably (given cricket's current manoeuvrings) as open and competitive as the world game can ever again be. The message that emerged at the sharp end of the tournament was that cricket in England did not need England's say so to have a good time. Whether it was Bangladeshis celebrating their famous triumph over Pakistan in Northampton, or hundreds of Pakistanis streaming onto the pitch to acclaim their semi-final win over New Zealand at Old Trafford, the World Cup lost little of its exuberance despite the hosts' struggles to keep up with the times, and it probably gained a degree of self-assurance along the way too.
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"The whole look and feel of the World Cup, in terms of its offering to the public as well as to our sponsors and media companies, wasn't terribly great," says Mani. "But if the World Cup had been in Australia and the hosts had gone out that early, the whole interest in the tournament might have dropped off. Whenever the World Cup is played in England, there's such a diversity of culture, which adds tremendously to the atmosphere. You don't get that mix anywhere else in the world."
"The message that emerged at the sharp end of the tournament was that cricket in England did not need England's say so to have a good time"
If the other stagings of the World Cup can be split into three broad categories - the years of innocence in 1975, 1979 and 1983; the years of awakening in 1987, 1992 and 1996, and the years of excess from 2003 onwards - then the 1999 tournament somehow eludes classification. It was defiantly forward-facing, yet mindful of the turbulence of its recent past, but also touchingly naïve about the path down which it was heading.
The quality of the cricket epitomised this point. The best team won in the end, which, for all the thrill of Cup upsets, is generally how you want posterity to judge your competitions. However, Australia's victory was light years removed from the almost preordained dominance with which they defended their title in 2003 and 2007. This time, after defeats against New Zealand and Pakistan, they had to fight tooth and nail to stay in the competition at all, and in their semi-final against South Africa at Edgbaston, they came through arguably the greatest ODI of all time.
But the tightrope that they walked - the same one that England and, four years later, the 2003 hosts South Africa, would both fall off - would in the years to come become too tight for the sport's administrators to countenance. It was all well and good coming up with innovations such as the Super Sixes to increase the World Cup's competitive element, but what if, as a consequence, those upsets damaged the financial integrity of the competition?
In 1999 the margins were small enough for a bit of market instability to be tolerated. By 2007, when India's early elimination had catastrophic consequences for the newly minted board, it was time to reduce all risk to the sport's revenues. Hence the ennui of the 2011 round robins, and the banishment of the minnows altogether from 2019.
"We didn't yet know what a hot property the World Cup had become," Mani says of 1999. "Clearly it was hot in terms of offering prestige for the holders, and when Asia hosted the World Cup in 1987 and 1996 those countries felt they had put themselves on the map. But it wasn't yet a hot property in terms of being lucrative."
And so there the 1999 tournament sat, encased in its commercial bubble wrap but yet to be shipped off to Mammon. It was an age when Pakistan, not India, was the subcontinent's standout team, when West Indies' glory days were still a recent memory, when Bangladesh still offered the promise of youthful exuberance, when a fully tooled-up Zimbabwe still had players of the quality of Heath Streak, Neil Johnson and the Flower brothers to justify their presence at the sport's top table. When South Africa were still oblivious of Hansie Cronje's deception. And when Sri Lanka were the reigning world champions. Cricket as a global product has surely never had it so good.
And the ICC, to its credit, was beginning to recognise this fact. "The strongest message that came across was that cricket's commercial activities were unprofessionally managed," says Mani. At that early stage of the board's corporate evolution it amounted to nothing more money-grabbing than an admission of self-worth.
For the ICC as a whole had been unprofessionally managed throughout that era - in the literal sense that it operated on a part-time basis out of rented offices at Lord's, on a budget of barely $100,000 per year. In 1998, Jagmohan Dalmiya, the man whose determination had first prised the World Cup away from England in 1987, marked his tenure as board president by introducing the ICC Knockout, a mini-World Cup that served as both a fundraiser and a path-finder for cricket's rulers. With revenues of $10 million for that first competition in Dhaka alone (known as the Wills International Cup), those first tentative steps into the corporate era had begun.
In spite of remaining rough around the edges in certain areas, the ICC had gone out of its way by 1999 to turn the World Cup into its own property, partly with a view to internalising the revenue streams that it had hawked out to its title sponsors in previous editions - namely Prudential, Reliance, B&H and Wills - but more importantly to bring closure to an era of bitter politicking among its member nations, at the heart of which had been the ownership of the World Cup itself.
For the 1996 World Cup, as had been the case when the competition was first taken to Asia, the tournament's heavy lifting was done by a local organising committee, Pilcom (Pakistan-India-Lanka Committee), whose very existence exposed fault lines in the ICC that threatened the very fabric of the game. World Cups were there to be swiped from under the nose of one member to the next, depending on who could galvanise enough votes by offering enough incentives.
"The tussle over the 1996 World Cup gave a sharp message to all of us that cricket couldn't continue like this; it would do itself a lot of damage," says Mani. "That, coupled with the match-fixing [allegations] which was just emerging, it was the sort of stuff that made people sit up and say, let's get this under control."
It helped, says Mani, that the ICC at that time was run by level-headed businessmen with clear-minded views - men like Malcolm Gray from Australia, Dalmiya from India, Lord MacLaurin from England and John Anderson from New Zealand.
"The best team won in the end, which, for all the thrill of Cup upsets, is generally how you want posterity to judge your competitions"
"We were able to sit around a table with no pressure, put an end to the horse-trading and award the hosting rights on a rotation basis," says Mani. "England offered to share the financial revenues between the members rather than offer a fixed amount and retain the surplus, and for the first time the countries realised they would make far more money if the ICC ran the whole thing."
The eureka moment, however, only came at the very end of the tournament, when Mani started doing his sums during the World Cup final between Australia and Pakistan at Lord's. "By then I had most of the numbers of what the ICC and the ECB between them had generated, and it was no more than the $50 million that Asia had managed three years earlier. And I came to the conclusion that there was something fundamentally wrong with the way the ICC was managing its World Cups.
"I had taken some soundings from a couple of broadcasters, including ESPN's Sandy Brown, who suggested that instead of selling the World Cup on an ad hoc, tournament-by-tournament basis, the broadcasters should be given the opportunity to acquire those rights for eight years at a time. That way they would be prepared to invest far more money because they'd acquire a much more valuable property.
"At the final I spoke with some ICC members, Lord MacLaurin among them, who was supportive, and so as chairman of the finance committee, I asked the board formally to explore options."
The suggestion was initially met with a wall of protest from South Africa and West Indies, who, under the new rotation system, had been awarded the 2003 and 2007 tournaments respectively. They feared that their cash cow was about to be milked before it made it to market. But Mani was given permission to go ahead regardless, and with representatives of both boards, Ali Bacher and Pat Rousseau, joining his committee he set off to meet the broadcasters.
What happened next transformed the sport forever. After initial suggestions that the new rights deal would be worth up to $200 million, it was eventually sold for $550 million. The subsequent round, from 2007-2015 was worth $1.1 billion. The next deal is expected to have raked in close to $1.9 billion.
"Everyone just fell off their feet," says Mani.
The genie is now out of the bottle and cricket's corporate era is in full swing, with all of its attendant threats and opportunities. But it was during England's humble homecoming that the cork was finally popped.