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One-day cricket's acid test

Paul Collingwood celebrates a wicket PA Photos

When the World Cup presents itself before the cheering masses on our subcontinent, there is more at stake than who wins the trophy. People have begun to wonder, with a mixture of concern and excitement, whether the home team can indeed win it. In both India and Sri Lanka, the answer is yes, and in Bangladesh, they can for the first time be genuinely optimistic about doing more than merely making up the numbers. But beyond that lies the question of the future of the format itself. If the World Cup is the pinnacle of the one-day international, it has to be a roaring success for the format to have an assured future. It hasn't been in recent times.

The World Cup in the West Indies was insipid, hardly a word anyone could have dreamt of using with respect to cricket in the Caribbean. Since then, there have been good games and bad, large crowds and empty stands, and now there is further proof coming in from Australia that if the context is right, the 50-over game is right, but if it isn't, not many people are interested.

The first four one-day games have been the dessert after the main course that the Ashes was - not the guest who doesn't leave till the lights are shut off. The Ashes were wonderful, but the fear was that both players and spectators would be exhausted by the tension of it all. Not true. Stadiums have been full and viewership has been outstanding. So too with the one-dayers between India and South Africa. It would seem that the one-day international still has much left in the tank.

However, where the action has not involved two fancied teams, or those with a long established rivalry, television rights holders have seen their investment pummelled, and entering grounds in some places has been a bit like going to a restaurant that has fallen on hard times. It would seem to reaffirm the hypothesis rapidly gaining ground that it isn't the format but the quality of the competition that seems to count.

"If indeed the viewership and attendance tend to be strongly skewed, if games not involving the top four or five leave people disenchanted, it would mean that the ICC's decision to have no more than 10 teams for the 2015 World Cup is right"

It is in this background that the World Cup comes to the subcontinent, needing a balm after the injuries of the last edition, but also seeking a confirmation of its value to the cricket-playing world. Will the context, so obviously relevant, pull viewers and spectators in? Or will only some games attract notice, leaving the seemingly lesser ones, of which there are plenty, bereft of attention? Ecuador v Switzerland, at the FIFA World Cup would pull in many more viewers than it would if it were a mere friendly. Will South Africa v Netherlands manage that here?

If indeed the viewership and attendance tend to be too strongly skewed, if games not involving the top four or five leave people disenchanted, it would mean that the ICC's decision to have no more than 10 teams for the 2015 World Cup is right. It would also ask some rather uncomfortable questions about cricket's huge investment in becoming a global sport. I do believe that as the parent body the ICC must do its best to allow everyone in the world to play cricket, and the emergence of Afghanistan has been one of the most touching things to have happened, but if teams don't compete, that investment will need to be questioned.

Kenya is a good example. Eight years after making the semi-final - even though that required a fortuitous turn of events - their cricket is going downhill rapidly. Ireland made an impact in 2007; now the world will want to see their progress. Otherwise it will be tempting to go back to the everyone-plays-everyone format of the 1992 World Cup.

It is important, too, that India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka put on a real show. While the faithful will throng the stadiums anyway, the right ambience and buzz can draw in the sceptics. In recent times, the news from off the field has been discouraging and cricket itself hasn't always taken centre stage. Fans need to be proud of their World Cup and it won't help if scaffolding is still up in stadiums in the month in which the tournament starts. The World Cup didn't creep up on us.

Happily, though, winter has started running out of steam rather quickly in the last week. While it means temperatures might be higher, it could also limit the effect of the dew that can ruin a contest. A hot World Cup on hard, dry outfields might not be great for bowlers but if the fans like runs to be scored, it might serve a greater purpose.