[Editor's note: The following story appears in ESPNcricinfo's 2015 Cricket World Cup Special Guide. Click here to purchase your copy.]
Like the best innovations, cricket's World Cup met a need nobody had foreseen. Around July 1973 -- when it was mooted by those notorious radicals, the Test and County Cricket Board, during a meeting of that intellectual avant-garde, the International Cricket Conference, at that glass of fashion, Lord's -- positively nobody was arguing that what cricket needed was an eight-team limited-overs tournament. Wisden afforded the announcement two paragraphs on page 1114 of the 1974 edition. A six-page feature about one-day cricket in the same volume -- "Cricket's Strongest Wind of Change" -- did not even mention it.
In context, cricket's inaugural "global" event seemed paltry too. In 1974, football held its 10th World Cup: 38 matches in West Germany attended by an average crowd of nearly 50,000, involving 16 competitors who had made it through more than 200 qualifying contests just to get there. To make cricket look more worldish and extend activities to 15 games, the six Test nations had to invite teams from Sri Lanka and East Africa on not much more than a hunch they would be competitive. Even then the promotion was ambivalent. Insurance-giant sponsor Prudential insisted that the media refer to the event as The Prudential Cup, which former England captain Tony Lewis thought "perfectly fair under the terms of the sponsorship," and especially as "World Cup" without exiled South Africa was "a misnomer."
Look closely at photographs of Clive Lloyd after the final at Lord's and you will see, likewise, that the silverware he's holding aloft is stamped only with the sponsor's name. It was the fans, then, and their gathering consensus, that nourished the idea of a global gourd. At the time, Wisden was so strangely indulgent of sponsors that it had conferred Test status on the 1970 Guinness Trophy, England's series against the Rest of the World, but even editor Norman Preston had to fall in line with popular sentiment. While the almanac's report was obediently headed "The Prudential Cup," the text deferred to the groundswell: "The First World Cup cricket tournament, officially called The Prudential Cup, proved an outstanding success."
As indeed it had, generating more drama in its fortnight than many whole English summers and even overshadowing the subsequent Ashes series. Lewis was a convert. "Before this season, in the minds of those who had to play it, international one-day cricket was always the necessary evil that followed the Test matches," he concluded in his 1976 tome, A Summer of Cricket. "This one had to be different if only because it was the very reason why eight countries found themselves in conflict at the same time. It was unique. So from all points of view it was a complete success. Grounds were almost always full, there was excitement which never spilled over into hooliganism, disappointment which was dispelled by the sportsmanship of the occasion." A Gallup poll found that more than half the men in Great Britain had followed the games.
Forty years on and the Cup fits snugly in the space it created for itself: the de facto object of global rivalry, satisfying the yearning among every group of the sport's fans to determine a world champion. Cricket has made this absurdly complicated for itself by competing over four distances, the longest, oldest and most complex of which, Test match cricket, is a race without a finishing line. The World Cup, of course, can meander too. It went from 27 matches in a pacey 17 days in 1983 to 51 matches in a languid seven weeks in 2007. But it's a known quantity, an accessible concept, and there has seldom been a sense other than rightness about the result.
The best team won in 1979, 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011; the most romantic team won in 1975, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1996 and … well … in 2011 too. By becoming the first side to win on its own soil, India, with MS Dhoni's combination, fulfilled the country's long hankering to witness a global triumph with its own eyes. "The young women and men, more or less my age, who claimed the streets, riding on the roofs of cars, impressed more on the observer than mere exhilaration," noted Vaibhav Vats at the climax of his 2013 travelogue, Triumph in Bombay. "It was as if they were strutting on the world stage, confident in the singular belief that their moment had arrived." You don't get that from the Champions Trophy or the Indian Premier League or even the World T20. The World Cup has a shorter history than Test cricket, but it has a history, full in the main of disappointment, for there can be only one winner at a time. The most successful country, Australia, has won 72 percent of its games and lifted the trophy four times; the next most successful country, South Africa, who have won two-thirds of their games, have never been champions. That's the stuff of which grails are made.
Much of the prestige and profundity of the Cup can be traced to what we might call The Passion of Kapil Dev, when a team that had won a solitary match in two previous tournaments suddenly toppled West Indies from their Lord's perch. Romantics seeking to magnify the miraculousness of 1983 sometimes forget that India had comfortably beaten West Indies in their first group match and with their detachment of dibbly-dobbly bowlers were well suited to English conditions. But it's fair to say no single fixture has had such far-reaching effects, converting the world's biggest cricket fan base to the one-day game in a single sun-kissed London afternoon. That it should have been Kapil Dev himself beneath the fall of Viv Richards' soaring top edge was a fluke within a feat within a legend.
The germ of the idea to hold the next Cup on the subcontinent was hatched as early as the next morning by the BCCI's president, NKP Salve, and his Pakistani counterpart, Nur Khan -- a remarkable collaboration given the unofficial state of war between the two countries for much of the decade. Almost as remarkable in hindsight is that such was the prevalent view of South Asia cricket tours as a hardship posting, neither David Gower nor Ian Botham could be bothered participating in the subsequent event in 1987. History might have been very different had England gone into the final against Australia with Gower and Botham rather than Tim Robinson and Phil DeFreitas. As it is, poor, hapless Mike Gatting has borne decades of odium for an ill-timed reverse sweep -- hell, at least he was there.
A third story that proceeds from Kapil Dev's famous catch, usually overlooked, is that of West Indian decline. The winners of the first two World Cups have made the semi-finals once since finishing runners-up in the third, and there was no certainty until November that West Indies would even be a participant in Australia. No international team has so traded on past glories as the one made great by Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards et al., and the Cup has been a faithful index of their decadence.
The sixth World Cup -- chaotic, political and exuberantly rich -- may go down as the formalising of cricket's geopolitical power shift. The BCCI, which again bid to host in harness with Pakistan and Sri Lanka, did not so much bang on the ICC's door as tear it from its hinges -- a foretaste of the modern norm. "By a long way the worst meeting I have ever attended," complained the Test and County Cricket Board's Alan Smith of the 14-hour ICC gathering at Lord's in February 1993 that voted in the visitors' favour. "Fractious and unpleasant … beset by procedural wrangling." The BCCI's IS Bindra dismissed such complaints as English pique: "The TCCB [Test and County Cricket Board] has not got over the Raj hangover. They seem not to like their erstwhile colonial subjects coming to London and beating them at what they still consider their own game. … We in the subcontinent want to prove to the rest of the world that whatever they can do, we can do better."
The twin objectives of the Cup - spreading cricket to new frontiers, bankrolling the existing order -- are now subtly in tension.
Whether they did it better was debatable; that they did it richer was beyond dispute, thanks to a television tie-up with Mark Mascarenhas' WorldTel and sponsorship by tobacco giant ITC (Wills). Competition raged off the field as well -- Pepsi enraging official soft drink supplier Coca-Cola with its famous "Nothing Official About It" campaign and inducing Inzamam-ul-Haq to run faster after a Pepsi truck than he ever did between wickets. The cresting Indian economic wave was turning what had been merely the Cup that cheered into the Cup that funded. In July 2000, the ICC sold the commercial rights to the next two World Cups (and other ICC events) to Rupert Murdoch's Global Cricket Corporation for an unprecedented $550 million. Rights sales completed twice since for ever-growing sums are a far cry from the profit on the inaugural event of £100,000.
To a great degree, the Cup's commercial fortunes are now entwined with their Asian followings. The 2003 event achieved financial success because India made the final, but the 2007 event registered a sour taste with backers when both India and Pakistan failed to make the last eight and were missing from the last five weeks. Joy and mammon were spread in 2011. MS Dhoni's six out of Wankhede Stadium was seen by 135 million viewers in India alone: He received a Ferrari, non-striker Yuvraj Singh an Audi and every other player a Verna, in addition to more than $6 million in cash bounties from various sources. Partly to ensure fans on the subcontinent remain engaged as long as possible, the next event will spend 42 matches eliminating six of the 14 contestants, then only seven matches whittling them down to a winner.
The Cup has not ceased to be a showcase for other nations, especially those for whom opportunities to display prowess to a wide audience come seldom. Afghanistan will become the 20th team to participate when they play Bangladesh in Canberra on Feb. 18 -- if you count the nations that make up West Indies and those that composed East Africa in 1975, players from almost 40 countries have been involved. It's also arguable that "minnows" have made an outsized contribution to cup folklore, especially in preliminary stages.
Sri Lanka's graduation to Test cricket followed its noble efforts against Australia in 1975 and unexpected win against India in 1979, which opened the annals of World Cup upsets: Zimbabwe beating Australia in 1983 and England in 1992; Kenya beating West Indies in 1996 and Sri Lanka in 2003; Bangladesh beating Pakistan in 1999 and India in 2007; Ireland beating Pakistan in 2007 and England in 2011. Then there are the gonzo moments: Sultan Zarawani going lidless against Allan Donald in 1996 and Dwayne Leverock going berserk after catching Robin Uthappa in 2007, far more memorable than a five-wicket or an 80-run win by one Test nation against another; Australian Rodney Hogg has honed a droll comic routine from his experience of being taken for 26 off two overs by Canadian Glenroy Sealy in 1979.
But the twin objectives of the Cup -- spreading cricket to new frontiers, bankrolling the existing order -- are now subtly in tension. At a time when most sports are thinking more globally, cricket is scaling its ambitions back for profit's sake: The 2019 and 2023 Cups, to be held in England and India, respectively, will feature ten teams, two more than in 1975, half a dozen fewer than in 2007. If Prudential regained its interest in cricket, there would be an argument for giving it unqualified naming rights. After all, the definition of "prudential" is "involving or showing care and forethought, especially in business." A cynic might argue that "Prudential" would suit a ten-team international event more accurately than "World."
Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer